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I figure a well-trained urban man can find poetry anywhere: down the smoggiest boulevard, along the aisles of a mega-store, or sitting in the orange booth of a fast food restaurant. With a slight attitude adjustment, I'm sure we can all become cheery Huell Howsers, finding gold in the dust of technical civilization, even as it clouds the better part of our lives.
For example, just last week, my car broke down somewhere in the Central Valley. I had been cruising up the 99 with my kids in search of a genuine California spectacle—Half Dome or the Golden Gate Bridge—while carefully ignoring the, you know, ugly places in between.
Then lo, there came a scraping and grinding, and we found ourselves sitting in a Motel 6 while a mechanic scowled at the underside of our car.
I saw it as a challenge. I mean, what if I could find poetry even here?
I began by surveying the Motel 6 itself, noting that although built of stucco and concrete, the architect had tried to introduce a hint of French country manor. Our upstairs window was bayed and showed the faint afterglow of continental style. When I opened the drapes, the bulbous yellow star of a Carl's Jr. winked outside.
Okay, not promising, a Carl's Jr., as far as poetry goes.
Still, across the way, I spied a mini-mart brimming with immigrants; and to the west, the steep embankment of the freeway, where the fearsome tops of mammoth trucks whizzed by. I thought there might be some romance there: you know, something about the open road and the restless heart of America.
Okay, at this point, you're asking, "Didn't this room have cable?" And I'm sure that yes, the best thing about technical civilization is that although it destroys small towns and turns them into hideous nowheres, you can escape anytime you wish. Pull the blinds, and you're off to the African veldt or some fantasy world of near-infinite poetry.
I notice that's how the residents of this burg survive—I mean by tying their umbilical cords to many satellite dishes and Gameboys. By keeping their iPods turned on. When I dropped off the car, the mechanic had said, enviously, "You're from L.A.? I bet you go to Disneyland all the time."
To please him, I said, "Oh yes, all the time." Although, of course, thanks to technology anyone can visit Disneylands, every day.
We need never be "nowhere."
But me, I'm not ready to surrender just yet. Would Huell Howser turn on the TV in a situation like this? I tell the kids to pack up their dirty clothes, 'cause we're heading out on an expedition to seek the mysterious... laundromat. And sure enough, along the way, we pass a "Hawaiian Barbeque" with a sign featuring a hula girl, an Arco with a sudsy waterfall, and the "Smiling Sam" Liquor store. Weeds grow like tall tales through the broken windows of the Sleepy Hollow Hotel.
Unfortunately, my kids see none of these as fabled possibilities, and seated in the laundromat, they rebel. I don't allow them Gameboys, but they do pull out the latest volume of Harry Potter.
Yes, Harry Potter!
At once, I recall that this greatest masterpiece of our time imagines an enchanted kingdom existing unseen beside the modern industrial world, a parallel life in which no one needs cars or mini-marts or Motel 6's. Where the grimmest nowhere hides a somewhere of magic.
At this point, Potter may be the best I can hope for, poetry-wise. And sitting in the laundromat of an ugly no-town strewn along the 99, the Urban Man starts reading aloud.
Copyright © 2007 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved.
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