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  • Writer's pictureHo Hai Yen

There are dead cities for the living

The city darkened as the brick-red sun slipped between two high-rise buildings and then suddenly disappeared.

In a moment as quiet as the silencing of a telephone, the city was cut off from its surroundings. Everything went dark, like a house blowing a fuse, like a pair of eyes blinded after an accident. The people who lived there struggled, fumbled, grabbed what they could, and tried to speak as loud as possible so the neighbours, nearby friends, and entire family a few hundred kilometres away could hear. People treat the city as if it were a dark, lifeless being. Only drawing in, nothing out. Only static, nothing dynamic. For people to live, cities must die.

Because people breathe. Cities do not.

When the city was alive, it decorated itself splendidly with its glass-clad skyscrapers. Between day and night, the light of the sun and the intensity of the illuminated city, there was no distinction. I don’t know where to go among those glassed-over buildings. Strolling along the busiest shopping streets, entering ancient buildings majestically decorated, I let all that luxury and glamour seep inside me, little by little, just as I let myself be swallowed up by the darkness within my room every night.

I thought my life was only boring to that extent, until the city unexpectedly showed me that life can be even more tiresome than that, and it died. No more cars commuting on the road, no more busy shopping malls, no more hazy smoke emanating from roadside eateries. The city slowly welcomed each clinical death along its path. In waves, in swells, depending on the generosity of its people. Ever since then, day and night, the people have moved away from the city. They locked themselves in their own shelters, watched the whole city die through the shutters of rickety attics, peeking through the gaps in iron doors, or enjoying the silence and death from above. Like a quiet and disconsolate traveller who wants to wander to relieve their sadness but alas, sees in this moment that the most important place to go is nowhere far from their heart. That traveller is me.

Since the city died, the entire space in front of me has been reduced to two small points of view: one is a glass window that extends across a wall, and the other is a peephole drilled into the main door. If the glass gave me a panoramic view of the stylish centre of the city in the distance, enveloped by a suspicious stillness, the peephole gave me a close-up view of people in the flesh: every morning, from about 7:00 to 7:10, old janitors in blue uniforms slowly pushed their hulking carts to collect the trash. With or without gloves on, they gradually opened each black trash bag, sorted out what was in it, took out the usable bottles and put them in another bag, and dumped the trash that could not be dealt with. Anything recyclable went into a large bin. Sometimes, a few small items—a shirt, a small notebook—were quickly taken out and stuffed in the corner of the bottle bag. Seeing how they treated the trash, I suddenly recalled a scene in Fallen Angel, where the girl says that the best way to know a person is to look at their trash can. I don’t think these janitors wanted to investigate the occupants of the building like me, they were simply trying to find value in what others considered worthless.

Those old janitors, mostly women—I’ve seen them a few times as they were meticulously wiping the floor clean; scrubbing the mirror in the elevator until it was spotless, watering the front lobby until it was dry, and resting in the broom closet. I’d looked, but hadn’t really seen them, until the days when my point of view was reduced to a peephole. This pandemic, these quarantine days, have both widened and narrowed my eyes, letting me see a few things I missed before.

In the apartment complex where I live, the past four months have simply been stretched and multiplied by a hundred and twenty times its typical day—everything quiet, silent, and perfectly normal. So strange. The janitors still quietly collected garbage every day and made sure everything was clean. The security guards still graciously carried all the items I needed or opened the car door when I reached the lobby. Supermarkets were still open and full of food. People still treated each other in the most courteous, politest way possible. Everything was so peaceful that sometimes it made me forget that I was living in a historical moment, that there were so many people out there struggling with food and rent, or trying to breath in a hospital bed every single day.

On the day before the day that the whole city was freed from clinical death, the sky was pouring rain from the early morning. It rained in a repetitive rhythm like the regrettable jazz of an unskilled musician. The rain caused all the glass-covered buildings to expose themselves to the battle. The sky, the immovable ash-coloured curtain, was imposing on the terrestrial landscape an air of profound melancholy. I looked out the glass window overlooking the city centre. A great gloomy and lonely scene of the September sky. A rain that seemed to wash away all the pain of patience during the past four months.

The next day, and the day after, the rain had lessened in intensity, but the persistence remained. The rain covered the glass in my room with steam, and the leather bag I left at work turned green. Rain makes the mind waterlogged, and the soul sodden. I liked the way the wind carried moisture from the rain onto my face afterwards, but still didn’t like the way it rushed down and then abruptly stopped in revenge. It makes people feel helpless and weak when so many plans and intentions can vanish in smoke because of a single downpour.

But no matter what, I will always remember these rains, the persistent rains from late September to early October, the rains that washed away a dead city.

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