The Entire City

Monday, July 16, 2012

1. Plaster

A few months ago, my father died.

In 1986, when he was thirty-two years old—the year I turned four—my father, Dr. John Mayers, published his University of Portland doctoral dissertation, The Privacy of Other Places, with a small press in North Carolina. Five hundred copies were printed, the back cover describing the book as “an examination of architecture's relationship with the economies of the seven most structurally conspicuous cities in the United States: Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Portland,” where my father finished the final manuscript, clicking on the old IBM Selectric alone at the dining-room table in our northwest Portland house, Mom upstairs reading (The Clan of the Cave Bear), me watching cartoons (M.A.S.K. or X-Men) in the living room, face against the screen, the volume just a whisper. Or Dad would be working in his windowless office downtown at Portland State University, between graduate student meetings and courses on Social Architecture, or The Economies of the Modern Metropolis, sleeping in his office cot as often as at home. During his four years of research for Privacy—funded largely with a grant from METRO, Portland’s civic-minded planning board, fine-tuning the city like a minimalist symphony—he traveled alone, returning home once a month and some holidays, no gifts besides his tieless, untucked self. My earliest memory of him is from around this time, just months before the book was complete. It’s late at night and he is smoking a tight, hand-rolled cigarette on the porch and talking with a female neighbor, smiling wide, dropping ash onto his shirt as he laughs. When he sees me coming in my GI Joe pajamas, pushing open the screen door, there is no reprimand, no censure, he just rises, shoveling me into his arms. Through everything, the father in my mind remained this one, dry smoke on his breath, teeth glowing in the soft porch light, permanent as a coin.

“Wednesday, R— took me out to visit Malin’s infamous Chemosphere. As an undergraduate I was fascinated by the audacity of the work, and quite sure that Lautner—along with Neff, Judge, and Webb—conceptualized the economic output of Hollywood in these mushroom-looking domes. The same way giants Bartholdi and Eiffel motivated billions with the firebrand of industry, so too Lautner did for the imaginative cortex of the Western world. Men, visionaries such as these, are the type of souls who have driven me to devote my energy to such a work as this—a personal dictation of our relationship with construction. A traveling account, a diary of the structure.” (The Privacy of Other Places, chapter 1, “The End of Los Angeles,” page 17)


My relationship with my father mystified me as a boy. Other children knew their fathers. I would watch them play football in the yard or talk together in the living room. My dad was always in his office, emerging only now and again if company came over or for meals.

My father was always touching me, petting me like a dog, his hand brushing my shoulder or hair absently while he read some book or chatted on the phone. That was pretty much my whole relationship with him, except that when he was working on his manuscript or when someone from the university came to see him, I would be dispatched to the yard. Later he got strange and never bothered with me at all.

One Saturday morning when I was ten, I sat on the front steps of our house waiting for my father to come out. He was inside taking apart the television. The set had been working fine that morning as I watched cartoons, stirring marshmallow colors into the milk of my cereal with a spoon until it all turned pinkish-brown. My mother went to stop him, but then, seeing he was doing it so methodically, keeping all the hardware separate in little twists of foil, pulling everything apart ever so gently, as though he were performing heart surgery on a newborn rather than dismantling a cheap Panasonic appliance, she instead got a beer from the fridge and yanked me from where I sat gawking on the couch outside with her onto the porch.

“We can put it all back together later,” she said, woodpeckering the half-full bottle against the edge where we sat. I ran my fingers along the grain of the cut edge of the wood, recoiling when I caught a splinter. I pulled it out with my teeth, sucked the blood from the pad of flesh. After about ten minutes, I got anxious and began swinging my legs back and forth against the lip of the deck. Mom leaned back on one arm and placed the perspiring glass bottle on her neck, her cheek, her forehead. Beads of water rolled from the bottle down her face as if she was crying. “Dad’s just tired,” she said, breaking the silence and wiping her face with her forearm. She sat up and threw the bottle spinning into the nearby bushes; the remaining liquid flying out the end, it looked like a pinwheel coasting through the summer air. Soon a loud thump came from inside, then three quieter thumps, then the breaking of glass. Mom arose from the porch, stepped inside the door, and screamed. I didn’t hear him scream back. As I undressed for bed later, I noticed large red welts behind both of my kneecaps where the jagged edge of the porch had rubbed my skin raw.

The following year—my father gone most all of it, my only evidence of his existence an automobile-covered postcard from Detroit and a nearly illegible half-page letter from San Francisco seemingly about the National Parks Program—Mom began working longer hours at the cleaning-supply company where she was a receptionist. We soon moved from our Victorian home in affluent northwest Portland into a smaller, ranch-style home over in the quieter southeast section, a tree-lined neighborhood where I became painfully aware of freshly mown lawns, neighbors’ garbage cans curbside the night before pickup, the soft glow of indoor lights in other houses.

The meager amount of time she was not at work my mother spent either cleaning or locked away in her bedroom. I never knew what she did in there, but as a kid I assumed she read in bed or watched television with the sound low. Now I imagine she just lay there soaking in stillness and counting the fractalic white bumps in the plaster ceiling above, analyzing the strange eruption of white on white, noting the nothing from the nothing. And perhaps, after hours, after days, she become obsessed with how a surface can be both flatness and curve at the same time, both singular and multitudinous, getting lost in a suburban Mobius strip built of glue and powder, an endless series of disappearances within disappearances.

2. Jules Verne & X-Men

Privacy is a work of sentiment rather than scholarship. It’s informal for an academic work, continually straying from criticism to euphemism, analysis to anecdote. At times the book is about the life of cities, at other times it is about the life of my father. For example: page 7 of the introduction discusses in aching detail the relationship between the curvature of exterior molding, measured in half-degrees, and the saturation of artistically minded businesses, measured by reputation. The majority of the chapter on Minneapolis, for instance, is filled with fond memories of a boyhood fascination with primary colors and playground equipment, and for more than ten pages he goes on about swing sets and the color yellow.

In the spring of 1994 I turned twelve. Though my father had spent hardly any of my childhood with me, we were always together on my birthdays. These days were magical in the only ways that mattered then. Once he took me to the old roller-skating rink alongside the Multnomah River, built for the turn-of-the-century Centennial Exposition. An organ played in the center of the floor. My father spoke from the sidelines about the rink’s history as I skated alone loop after smiling loop. Another year we camped on the beach, staying up until the summer sunset to see if it was true about the green flash of light as the sun dips beneath the ocean. “Jules Verne says,” he told me as we rolled our sleeping bags onto the sand, “when we see the flash our thoughts and those of others are revealed as if by magic.” He winked at me. Hours later, a cup of once-hot chocolate on my lap, eyelids sinking shut, I saw it. A light-green wave pushed along the surface of the water toward me as if radiating from a blast site. When I turned excitedly to my father, I instead fell into the damp evening sand, the chocolate drink spilling onto my jeans. I eventually saw my father’s horizontal shape a few feet away, the deep blue of his sleeping bag moving up and down above the beach. I turned back to the water. The light was gone, the world quickly dimming, as though someone had flipped a switch. My damp legs began to chill, and the black water whispered in a foreign tongue as it pulled against the shore.

There are certain things we are allowed to give to the world and certain things we are allowed to take from it. This is not up for debate, but is final, specific, and absolute. In college, my goal was to be a painter in the likes of Wassily Kandinsky and Robert Rauschenberg, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I covered handmade canvases with swipes of burgundy and orange, torn pages of journals, broken clock faces. Nonetheless my favorite artist, the one who kept me in the library cubbies past midnight with monographs and reproductions was not one whom I emulated, and the reason for this to this day eludes me, though it has no doubt something to do with my temperament. The painter was Max Ernst, whom Paul Eluard once described thus: “swallowed up by feathers and left to the seas, he has translated his shadow into flight, into the flight of the birds of freedom.” (Privacy, introduction, page xvi)


Although he hadn’t been around all that year, I half-expected my father to still show up. My mother had long ago left for work, having set me a bowl of cereal out for breakfast, the spoon lying on the usual Hallmark card with my name looped in cursive, five dollars of birthday money tucked inside. I spent all morning searching for him: the garage, the laundry room, the backyard, the closets, sliding under the house, climbing a ladder and checking the roof, scanning the waking neighborhood in my Green Bay Packers pajamas. Back inside, I stood alone for a few minutes in the kitchen taking in the noise: a car stopping at the corner, moving again; the refrigerator’s hum; some young girl in a nearby yard laughing and laughing, laughing, it seemed obvious, at me and me alone.

I spent the rest of the day reading a stack of comic books in Memorial Park. I made my spot on the driest bit of grass I could find, fanning out the comics atop a nearby flat rock, setting my sack lunch of peanut butter and jelly and chips alongside them. I read into afternoon, lusting after the muscularly perverted figures of Liefeld’s New Mutants, lost in the Dali-like absurdity of Keith’s The Maxx, enthralled as Byrne and Claremont’s X-men uncovered labyrinthine days of future past. The ever-cloudy sky turned charcoal gray as evening set. I threw my trash in the bin and packed up. Rewind and repeat all the above for all following years of birthdays, holidays, and weekends.

3. Fathers & Sons

Interviewer: Some people I’ve talked to were disappointed with Privacy not because it was too personal but because it wasn’t personal enough.

Mayers: All things being equal it’s better to get your emotions out in a Macbeth than in a confession. Macbeth must have tons of Shakespeare in him.”

(from a 1987 interview in the Portland State University student newspaper)

On the afternoon of September 16, 2002, a shadow of my father showed up ringing the doorbell of my mother’s house. He weighed just 104 pounds according to the hospital scale he was later measured on. The pictures my mother took of him while he slept on her sofa are images of a balloon of flesh deflated over a man’s six-foot-two frame.

I was living in my own apartment across the river then and working at a small chain of twenty-four-hour markets that run along the MAX light rail line downtown, and which are known mostly for their large porn selection, snack food, burnt coffee, and cheap beer. The few friends I had made in high school were off somewhere at college or studying at local community colleges. The light rail outside continually recalled my mother’s taking it to work at sunrise and coming home long past dusk, constantly harassed by drunks on and off the train, once returning with a bruise on her cheek, her clothes ruffled. Nearby PGE Park reminds me of AAA baseball games alone while the other boys’ fathers got drunk on dollar beers and affectionately pawed their sons’ hair. X reminds me of Y. A brings back B. “Things,” my father writes in his introduction, “can remind us only of other things.”

My mother didn’t tell me about my father’s arrival or show me the photos until after she had had him admitted into Oregon State Hospital and he had been diagnosed with early-onset dementia brought on by Huntington’s. It was when she finally convinced me to visit him later that week that his doctor told me the disease was genetic. Pictures of my father sat on the desk while I waited in the doctor’s office. My father is naked in them under a blue gown, the limp drawstrings hanging open in back, his arms thin, aged replicas of my own. The doctor had given me a brochure earlier. I scanned its contents: There is no cure for Huntington’s and no known way to stop the disease from getting worse. The goal of treatment is to slow down the course of the disease and help the person function for as long and as comfortably as possible. Depression and suicide are common. “There is nothing to worry about yet,” the doctor had said as he walked out of the room. It suddenly seemed like a long time since I had been touched.

I was invited to stay the night at the hospital as a guest, and around midnight I approached my father for the first time in nearly a decade. Moonlight filled the hallway with a blue glow. His door was unlocked. Five feet from the entrance, lying in his gown on the white sheets of the bed, he looked even thinner than in the doctor’s photos. I went and sat on the edge of the bed, up by his chest, and woke him. “It’s me,” I said. He opened his eyes but didn’t move.

Earlier that evening as I waited in the doctor’s office, he had been yelling and running up and down the halls. When the doctor returned, he said my dad had been naked while he ran.

As I sat alongside him on the bed, he remained motionless. My left heel bumped against something and I bent down and looked under the mattress frame. In the light leaking in from the hall, I was able to make out a network of chains. They were wrapped multiple times around the bed legs, then around the bedside table and also around a chair in the corner. (I discovered later from my mother that no one in the hospital ever found out where he had gotten the chains.) Sitting back up, I saw that my father’s eyes were still open. He seemed to be examining the white soundboard tiles of the ceiling. I looked up at them, then back down at my father. I then reached out toward his face and put the index finger of my right hand into his mouth.

It was oddly dry. Turning my wrist counterclockwise, I pried his mouth open. His eyes went wide, black stones in puddles of white. “It’s me,” I whispered.

I pulled his mouth open even further, pushing my middle finger inside. His incisors brushed against the side of my hand but he still didn’t move. His mouth felt eerily relaxed, as though unhinged from the rest of his head, yet I could feel his body becoming rigid along the bed, stiffening in the sheets. I touched the damp softness of the back of his throat. I gazed into his vulnerable mouth.

After a few minutes like that I left. Not yet twenty feet down the hallway, I heard from his room a heavily muffled hacking cough, like a child’s cry at a great distance, as though he was trying to breathe the sheets.


Michael Graves’s Public Services Building is exactly what was expected when in 1980 Governor Goldschmidt asked for “a renovation in architectural discourse”—that’s what he got. I tell this to my son, whom I have carried downtown with me (even at four years old he is “too tired” to walk), and he looks away, distracted. The next generation will harbor resentment for critical thinking. I put my son on the ground and wait five minutes until he finally stands up so we can get moving. (Privacy, chapter 7, “Metro City,” page 172)

4. Library

He died two days after I visited. That morning, soon after hanging up with my mother, who called me with the news, I received a phone call from the hospital. I let it go to voicemail.

My father’s funeral was a small affair, but the turnout was something else. On the small plot of land where he was to be buried—miles from downtown but just two blocks from the mall—hundreds of people converged on the surrounding grass, walking over other plots, other bodies. They seemed to never stop arriving, coming on in waves of black hats and carefully done hair. Mom politely said hello to everyone, until, after the first fifty, she sat down and just waved every so often from her chair.

The funeral is the only time I recall seeing my father’s book outside of our house. It seemed every person at the funeral carried with them a copy of Privacy—not simply carried but cradled it to their bodies. Spontaneous eulogies were read from it. Some even had the audacity to ask my mother for an autograph, which she declined. Some of his former colleagues said some words. Then they lowered the body into the ground.


There are three patterns of oblivion available to inhabitants of the contemporary city: a return to the ancient past by forgetting the present, a suspension of the present moment that cuts one off from both past and future, and the re-beginning of a new future that can only take place by forgetting what came before. (Privacy, chapter 6, “What It Means,” page 143)

Leaving my mother at the reception, I stopped by her house one last time—she ended up selling it three months later—and went to my father’s office in the back of the house. Even though the only time he was ever at the house was the afternoon he slept on the sofa, he had an office there, because my mother had kept an identical copy of his office set up since we moved in, the arrangement of the room as close as possible to his office in our old home. My mother never really spoke of my father around the house after he left, not at any length at least, as though she had used up all her memory of him, her longing for him, re-creating that room. It was set up like this: stacks of manuscripts (architectural papers and conference presentations) and magazines (mostly design and finance) in piles around his black Aeron chair. Hanging on the wall opposite the door, (1) on the far left, a framed black-and-white photograph of the Parthenon taken during his high school trip to Greece, an unknown girl sitting on a rock at the front of the frame flashing the peace sign, (2) to the right of that, a sketched charcoal portrait of my mother in her early twenties, looking like a gaunt Garbo, signed by my father, (3) at the far right, a framed still from Blade Runner, a moment from the famous scene at night high above the city, where a woman’s face is depicted hundreds of feet high in lights on the side of a skyscraper, and finally, (4) above all this, a reproduction of the gridded fortress of ancient Babylon hand-drawn directly on the wall itself. (My mother reproduced this freehand with a black Sharpie, copying the original one done by my father when he was working on a journal article on the city’s origins as a defensive structure.) A gold ashtray (though neither of my parents smoked) of Lee Lawrie’s statue Atlas stood in the upper right corner on a tidy gunmetal-trimmed steel desk, pushed against the wall to the right of the entrance. Two finely sharpened pencils (one blue, one red, for drafts of editing) on the right of the long-broken Commodore 64, sitting square in the middle of the desk surface, a green reporter’s journal closed to the left of it. On the ground adjacent to the desk, underneath the pictures on the wall, a three-foot-long bookshelf, just high enough for one row of books, a small selection of his collection that he kept at home (the rest he kept in his office at school, all of which my mother requested the school keep when he abandoned his university position). I memorized the shelf as a boy by the books’ spines and covers, their colors and fonts. I would touch them, weigh them in my hands. I recall sniffing them, stacking them, tossing them, even licking a few. I never opened them. Their names remain strangely as unfamiliar to me now as they were a decade ago, like a language I have no tongue for: Tertius Chandler and Gerald Fox’s Three Thousand Years of Urban Growth, Mircea Eliade’s The Myth of the Eternal Return, Jonathan Raban’s A Passage to Juneau, Jacques Ellul’s The Meaning of the City, H. W. F. Scaggs’s The Greatness That Was Babylon, Richard Snow’s Coney Island, Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, Ibn Khaldun’s The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, Thomas Wilkinson’s The Urbanization of Japanese Labor, and a summer 1964 issue of Location. From the end of the bookcase, I pulled my parents’ last copy of Privacy. I turned the book over in my hands. The faded gloss coating was covered in cracks, and a tear extended halfway across the brown cover. Square in the middle, printed in black, sat the title, The Privacy of Other Places, arrogantly asserting itself. In smaller letters running along the very bottom of the cover—a strange design choice, as though the words are attempting to escape detection—was “By John Mayers, PhD.” I tucked the book under my arm. After looking a few moments more about the room, I grabbed the green journal from the desk, then turned out the lights.

In the kitchen, I took some black pens from the far left cabinet. In amongst the pens and receipts in the drawer, I noticed my mother’s green American Express card. I pocketed it as well. I left my house key clearly in the middle of the kitchen counter, locked the door handle, and pulled it shut behind me. The sun sat high over the Douglas firs, and my forearms tingled in the cool air. Somewhere far up the street, skateboards echoed against concrete like machetes.


"Privacy is precious in cities. There is an attraction and disgust in such encounters, a push and pull in the enchantment of the new.” (Privacy, page 2)


An hour later, I stepped off the MAX train with a messenger bag and packed duffel over my shoulder, crossing the sidewalk and grass to the bus station. The woman at the Greyhound counter inside collected the eighty-dollar fare for a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. I sat in a row of hard plastic chairs directly across from the sea-blue tiled bathrooms and a row of humming vending machines. My cell phone buzzed in my pocket again from the hospital. I pulled out Privacy and a pen...and began writing in the margins these notes for a work of my own. Bus stations are notoriously lonely. Coins leave a hollow chink as they fall into return slots in the machines. A sharp body odor lingers over this row of chairs. I pick up my stuff and move closer to the door. Out the window, a full-grown Great Dane, gray with white spots, makes its way alone across the midday street. I glance at my notes (“A few months ago, my father died”), the loose, sloppy penmanship so obviously silly butting up against those authoritative lines of type. I close the book and stick it and the pen in my bag, crossing my arms over it all in my lap. I watch the dog outside, frozen across the north and southbound lanes. He seems to know what he is doing, the big animal, the graceful beast caught in so much human traffic.

5. Los Angeles

It goes forever but it’s repetition, the same pattern over over over, big, complex-looking shapes from afar, up close just endless glaring car hoods in the heat and exhaust twisting into twelve jammed lanes of interstate traffic, then palm trees palm trees palm trees palm trees palm trees until the bus stops, graffiti on the bathroom toilet says “kill whitey” and BMWs and bikes are parked in front of the restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, tattoo parlors, and there’s city hall, once tallest building in the nation, probably smaller now than some shopping malls, around the corner is that ton of gleaming metal pushed through an Acid flashback of architecture, like slag off the back of some intergalactic ship, Disney’s gleaming walls twisting up and up so the first message aliens (earthly and intergalactic) will get if they stop here first is that the princess always, always has the key. Movies in L.A. are just better than movies other places. At a bar (bikes, front) a woman who was probably great-looking now skin like leather, reeks of old patchouli, says, “Los Angeles is embarked on a strange experiment.” I watched the original Abre los Ojos years ago in a PDX art house theater but the original couldn’t even compare to the new Vanilla Sky remake with Tom Cruise & co. I saw at a downtown L.A. multiplex, walking out into the sun and energy, I wanted to hit something, shake something, fuck something, because I knew so truthfully, like the direction up, or that fire equals pain, we could all be Penelope Cruz, could all be Tom Cruise, could all be Katie Holmes Justin Timberlake Will Smith Sharon Stone Tim Robbins Harrison Ford Jamie Foxx Brad Pitt Meg Ryan Tom Hanks Audrey Hepburn Robert Downey Jr. Mickey Rourke Matt Damon Greta Garbo Katharine Hepburn Charlton Heston Montgomery Clift if we tried because it’s the people that are the buildings, everything else is transit. I climb onto the 1:15AM north, 24 claustrophobic, Tylenol PM hours up I-5 corridor, vacancies until Portland, Seattle, though there is no end to the raining and I spend the first day waiting for the weather to let up, stepping out for Chinese, to Pike’s Place for coffee, reading & rereading Privacy, but nothing gets clearer through repetition, just the letters stretching like taffy into shapelessness, then gray, the rain’s finally let up... (John Mayers Jr., journals, November 2002–)

Sunday, July 1, 2012