John Tang

Civic Center by John Tang

Posted in Short Stories and Excerpts, Sketchbook by Jt's Item Roster on April 16, 2010

Civic Center

Riding through the California’s east bay, inside the BART he opened the afternoon to a newspaper. Faces, moist bricks, pressured air, were distracting and ill-translated whenever he sat down. Relaxed on one of those cotton benches—blue, soiled, thin-padded—he sincerely didn’t have the attitude to look out the window and point at “tiny matters except that the grime depreciated our public transit—and that was a fact.

Normally he worked at home in El Cerrito. Beside the yellow sofa was a single desk in the corner. Laptop opened and glowing. Lawn chair supplementing for an office seat until a “health issue” was considered. He once told Mrs. Vanden, the wife of the household—his wife—finally to take down those curtains smelling of ash in the living room. Color periwinkle. Violet strings hanging. Green tassels stitched in staplers. Because after work his sense of smell was sensitive, a subtle change like a shadow before a lamp, as the computer quietly blinked and shut off, he passed by the same curtains before entering the kitchen, saying to Mrs. Vanden, “How does the moist collecting on the windowsill hum inside our house, when the kitchen is always boiling in vegetable oil? Smelling isn’t a special skill that’s inherited but practiced. You remember in Houston when only an electric bill was all we worried about aside from room—recall big ones that separated, walled, in the least, was kept away from the kitchen? We don’t have that anymore. ”

Entering a tunnel: Black windows, blank reflections of citizens in their seats or asleep against the poles. Beside him was the leather bag with the laptop nestled in suede.

He saw a young black man closing the double glass doors to the preceding cart. Before he knew what had occurred, the man said to him, “God bless, sir. The Oakland Youth Center truly appreciates any donations from your generosity, sir. Maybe this year we’ll play Sacramento city,” said in all its fine syllables——the name resonating in a whisper through the rolling wheels. When did a city emerge up there? He thought. Only a fifteen-minute difference compared to San Francisco, and it was a new place we haven’t visited yet? Somehow, strangely though…Did the solicitor disappear in the pool of students and employees fusing inside the train? Because suddenly, amidst some conversation, “Was it the capital?” he politely asked the female biker beside him, who must’ve read the hind confusion in his face. Where in my face did she find the confusion to tell me about Sacramento? He wondered, placing the newspaper back on the floor where he found it, showing appreciation for an unwarranted attention in a “subway-like” transit; all awhile the biker said she enjoyed the heat and sallow and flat plains in Sacramento to Davis.

“Could you tell me a little something about yourself: Are you foreign? I hear your American accent, so not in an abroad-sense.”

“No, there isn’t really anything about me new as the wind—either cold or nice, isn’t that our autumn and spring up here? This isn’t the first time I’m riding the BART to the city? I know I’m always corrected when I call this a subway, or when I’m on the city I tell my wife to ride the bus, she corrects me into saying things like a local, calling the bus the MUNI. With the BART, I’m always corrected by my wife whenever I pull the car out the driveway and when the station is only down the street by the burger stop, or Korean store, whichever, and in the driveway my wife bangs the trunk with her palm, Gsh. Gsh. Gsh., telling me you could ride to the city on the BART—something Bay, Rail/Rapid, Transit? By that time I’d imagine the traffic down the hill and I’m home working on the laptop.” He tapped his bag.

The BART rolled to a stop, hissing, wheels scratching the steel tracks.

“Oh, I really don’t know what BART stands for.” She braced. “My stop’s here…safe trip.”

He couldn’t hear “have a” in the foot steps crowding inside the transit. And the noise came from outside, for the floor inside was carpeted in a dull, foggy blue like modern government folders. The cushion was there, his brown Italian-leather shoes sunk in. Soon the conductor announced the next stop in Ashby, all one heard were the wheels rolling on and on, even the stop at Ashby seemed unnoticeable, perhaps gratuitous, as the BART snuck under the bridge, where the pressured air popped the ears attuned and sterilized by the silent afternoon. More bricks filled the window to a black mirror. It was not worth looking around anymore. In front of Mr. Vanden, the next bench over, there was a box and an errand-boy in a charcoal baseball cap, who was in fact an adult man, fifty-two years old, who pulled the newspaper underneath the seat where Mr. Vanden displaced it. Leaving his arm on the window sill, the warm vent had the fingers sweating.

Closing the green door of his Houston home, Mr. Vanden hid the parking tickets in the wool pockets. He hung the pea coat in the closet. Padding it down once more, the paper crinkled and assured a confidence, as he lit the foyer and then the living room and the kitchen in white lights. The three-day old dinner was out on the counter in a tinted glass tray. The chicken wings poked through the foil. The cold vegetable oil and garlic bulbs scented the room after microwaving for two minutes. “Smells,” Ms. Vanden said from the door to the car garage. Inside she turned on the television and turned it off: On the freeway construction trucks never fully sealed their cargo, she said, their stones chipped the cars; simply she could not “be” here anymore. Insurance and other vehicle related issues were so trivial in what she truly asked for. In the dim refrigerator lights he poured himself a glass of water.

“Those are tiny matters.” He said, closing the fridge. “They’re not yours, anymore, when you’re in here.”

“Where are we at?” She asked. “I live with you: Isn’t it fair I ask?”

“We’re fine here in Houston.” He looked away from the light. “We are comfortable here.  Can you turn off the TV, please. Look, I got a ticket today in the parking lot for some bread. I was out buying sweet bread. It doesn’t bother me because I’m comfortable here. I know where to go a month from now. What the city demands of me. How to save for the fine—every week I’ll save…that’s aside from whatever…there’s a plan, that’s all; and there’s an end in every mistake. Keep away the outside from in here. Can you at least notice how clear I’m saying the problem I’m in right now? You cannot fairly compare our city to California’s. Can you recall the fine for littering when you were a girl? Most you would ever recall is a loitering fine on a garden. What’s the popular city there: L.A.? And your family is in Bakersfield? Don’t tell me about that place anymore. You should know, the symptom is called ‘romanticizing.’ Last night, I don’t even know what you were asking me. What are you asking me?”

He knew the BART was hitting a series of stops in San Francisco when he saw Embarcadero, a faint yellow on black, hanging from the bricked ceiling. A few more stops before the downtown library, either there or a local café, both atmospheres were never uncontrollable, or more precisely said, “he had could always look away.” Cars, shop bells, trumpeters, beggars, all shared a string in the scheme of things, including the smoking sewers and the unloading trucks and MUNI wires high before the clouded sky, as if the city was breathing. Mr. Vanded was there to watch it all in its nature. Noise wasn’t an issue because he never spoke to anyone in the company, or rather there was never any “difficulties” for assistance.

“And her reason we’re here is because we’re getting old,” he laughed. “I put us here. She’s  a joke: where’s the connect to a son?  we didn’t want it when we’re thirty.” He remembered the evening he fought with Mrs. Vanden. If the night was issued a title it would be named Romantics Asleep, a program where the writers would scramble for direction and drama and conclusion, because only one of them made sense of the evening! Although, now, he couldn’t reproduce that evening in his mind. All he recalled was the vowels in the mouth were pronounced so sweetly, concise, plus today was here because of his efforts in finding “a home” out here, reasoning to himself, Mrs. Vanden should in the least appreciate they were in the same state as her family. “I listened when she talked and today is stone,” he said.

Was the locomotive slowing down, he wondered, for the same sign was hanging over the window. Technical issues, he assumed, confounded that no one in the train showed any concern: “Maybe they know the train as well as I that every problem has an end to it.”

His eyes must’ve lost consciousness, gazing at the brown, red wall. Awakening only brought impatience, especially waiting for the errand-boy in front to drop the newspaper.

“Do you perhaps get off here?” Mr. Vanden asked over the man’s flat. “There’s a few more stops before mine, may I read your paper until then?”

“Where are you trying to get to?”

“Civic Center.”

“Mine is coming up.” He lifted the package, “to deliver this. I know its either hangars or metal trays—we get this all the time from Benecia and Richmond. Just glad enough there’s someone at the end to bring this to. This your first time riding?”

“No, it’s not.” He said. “I know the city pretty well; one street you’ll see the homeless and war vets, next street you’ll see people. And going towards Sacramento, our capital, you’ll find some excellent biking trails.”

“The question is general as asking about the weather. Yes,no aren’t ideas.”

“So you can do without your paper till the next stop?” He felt uneasy lying about the newspaper belonging to the errand-boy, originally. Nonetheless, the errand-boy gave him the newspaper. Mr. Vanden’s beetle brows were arched and suspended over fifteen minutes, so he wouldn’t open himself in conversing with the errand-boy. Was it of any concern? Because rolling pass two stops didn’t occur over the duration, Mr. Vanden spent pretending to over-concentrate the eyes on the black texts and wasn’t sure about yesterday’s tensions.

At the station he seemed unaware of everything. Not the ticket that opened the path, the guitar lulling, bikers unlocking their chains, when walking up the steps to keep right to avoid impeding others—fortunately not many were visiting downtown. Sterility was natural habitation. He didn’t realize how heavy the laptop was until he grew tired walking the last steps.

“Foggy today,” he looked up. The clouds sealed the city, as if the buildings were only pins holding up a carnival tent. Crossing a few streets, not following the walk-signal, he walked down narrow bricked pavement, wedged, almost, between a row of nude trees plotted in damp sand and a hairy lawn outside an abandon municipal building. Homeless men and women were gathered, quiet as the drizzle soaked in their brown or blue socks. Some were listening to the radio’s playing on near-dead batteries, others were lying down in the grass, many didn’t mind the steam surfacing from the sewers and vents for warmth. He kept his mind on the library until he felt two cold bars and tugged the door. Locked: Due to construction.

“Yes, sir, these doors are locked.” A man said from behind. “You can read the signs for yourself.”

“I come here all the time,” Mr. Vanden said and asked. “Why are they locked?”

“Living here, I know it’ll be locked the whole season.” The homeless gentleman pointed inside the window at an empty, dark-blue vestibule, at the steel bench dissembled on the floor (construction must’ve taken down already) where a few brown paper scraps were scattered, which also, too must belong to construction. The homeless man put his hand on Mr. Vanden’s shoulders, plucking the leather strap, saying as a joke, “That’s where they’ll let us sit around.”

“Kind of leather you have?” The man looked down, “I wore pair to work before.”

Mr. Vanden ignored the question, but what he saw was the library was under construction, so was half of the sidewalk, blacked out.

“Does he asks for some help?” asked an old woman in a knitted beanie, blue, magenta, on the crown was a nugget of fluff soiled in coca cola and grime, as she waved her hand over to the gentleman and Mr. Vanden. They were “bullshitting” with each other, as one of them called it.

“He’s lost.” He called back, “waiting for the library to open.”

“It’s close.” she laughed, “wait here with us, then.”

Mr. Vanden was lean, had clean, full brunette hair growing and flaring about the ear and neck, as one could see in the black window. When they reached the corner, waiting for the walk-signal, he politely asked the man, as if he noticed him for the first time, “You don’t happen to know when the next BART will be heading home to El Cerrito?”

“El Cerrito is nice to live in, I heard. Affordable, too.” He hung an arm on Mr. Vanden’s shoulder. “I have friend living out there. Has some good Asian stores, he tells me whenever I had to ride the BART to work.” He began smirking without any humor at hand.

“I’m only going home now.”

“I’ll escort you.” He smiled. “You know the word ‘escort’? It’s a skill in my family line I used in work.”


“Yeah. You listening?” He asked. “I have a way of saying things so crisp here.”

The streets were slick, cars drove fast, as if blind to the city. The signal changed.

“Says ‘walk,’” he pointed at the signal, “cross.”

In the man’s grip, he felt it guide him away from the station.

“You need, sometimes, to pay attention to the signs here.”

Mr. Vanden couldn’t help but hear a city wheezing through the sewers. He listened, as he also felt the denim strap loosening down the left shoulder.


It was not published this year in Glimmer Train’s summer edition, but I would like share with those who were willing to take a short-short journey. The packet was returned  last month in March, and no one reviewed the piece, the corners remained clean, unbent.


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