The best and quite possibly the only way to stop all that persistent whining about life is to look at it. It breathes, after all, all around us at any moment of the day, and self-absorption is its mortal enemy number one. Here’s a series of snippets from the peculiar denizens we had the succulent pleasure of observing along the crowded avenues and hidden alleys of this snobby city.
On our way back from the closest bus stop to our floating home on loan at Westhaven Marina we are strolling along the narrow sidewalk along the South end of little St. Mary’s Bay towards the end of one afternoon just like any other. The sun hints at its intentions to set and call it a day from behind a veil of grey colored clouds to the West behind the silhouette of the ever-roaring Auckland Harbor Bridge. Two slender dragon boats plow the bay. In it a dozen or so paddlers bow under the growling shouts of the helmsman behind their backs and fiercely dig their blades into the water in a frenetic rhythm that cries wolf to the tune of quasi-military discipline and burning desires to atone flaccid muscles under crushing peer pressure towards imaginary fashion model lines. Pulsating wafts of a pungent olfactory clash between high-cholesterol sweat and designer deodorants stream by our cheeks, which are caressed and cooled by a stingy evening breeze, as lonesome joggers with faces suffering visibly from self-inflicted ambition hop by huffing and puffing. More comfort-centered humanoids dash by to our left inside their four wheeled metal cages, two lanes right beside us bringing them to and from the marina and yacht club buildings, then behind a glass topped concrete wall a whopping ten lanes of motorway streaming interminable hordes of daily commuters out of the city towards their spread out homes beyond the bridge and into it attracted by the many glittering and neon-lit nightlife opportunities in the Central Business District. Along the northern end of the bay where the reclaimed land of the marina rests behind dark brown and olive green rock walls a flock of little white triangles reveals itself slowly as a group of model sail boats, each sporting an impeccable Marconi rig, bobbing nervously towards little orange markers that draw a rhomboid shaped race course onto the far end of the water. The toy boats clearly move under remote control and must obey orders from their masters somewhere close by. A group of jean and t-shirt clad boys stand under the rows of Pohutukawa trees that frame the parking lot behind the rock wall without their crimson Christmas glory at this time of the year. The distance across the water is too great to see any great detail, but their movements are clearly linked to the fleet of triangle toys on the murky bay.
The mystery of who are the masters of the slaves solved no further attention is due to the phenomenon until we have rounded the bay and find ourselves at the side from where that little spectacle is controlled, although the uniformity of the tiny vessels had struck a sour note in my desperately creative brain that longs for and treasures variety as one of the many delicious spices of life. On the little wharf where normally dinghies from the yacht clubs are launched a flurry of little stands sit, arranged not too orderly, but once again astonishingly uniform in their appearance. They’re all made of two vertical slats of plywood with U-shaped padded openings on top and connected with four longitudinal struts. All are painted in a uniform brown and the color of the padding is uniformly white. So much order has my suspicion tickled with intrigued excitement. This does not look to me like the work of a rowdy gang of adolescents as would be fitting for the nature of these toys. By now the gaily bobbing toy boats are on their final stretch and plow their way towards the home base. Their masters reveal themselves to be a veritable grey-haired boys club, none of them much younger then half a century worth of Lents. The first group of four comes marching towards us, each with their joystick sporting radios strapped up front and I must say, I’m utterly surprised how serious a business theirs must be. The four wrinkled faces are ashen colored and supremely tense. It does not seem to be so much the difficulty of controlling the remote miniature vessels that causes them so much stress, but a dead serious conversation that appears to be evolving between them, the gravity of which must be outrageously burdensome to their very souls. We respectfully stand to one side of the path and let the somber procession pass. The next more loosely bunched group approaches and they must be the younger guard of this quite obviously very exclusive club. They also do not seem to bother about returning any kind of greeting to us regular mortals except for one. He has been left walking just a little bit behind his pals. For a short moment he is released from the grip of codified behavior needed to keep his membership dues up to date and he looks me straight in the eye. In a flash of absurd and highly embarrassing self-awareness his lips encased between a pair of impeccably shaved cheeks distorts to a sly smile that vanishes before it has the slightest chance to even think of blossoming. Condensed in that splinter of non-verbal communication rests a brazen shout of one clear and committed confession: I know! I know that you know, and we all know it too. It is after all a game we’re playing; I cannot help but admit to it. But don’t you dare tell it to the others!
The western end of Auckland’s bustling waterfront along the Waitemata Harbor seems to be undergoing a rustling rant of redevelopment. Leaving behind the bustling transportation hub at the lower end of Queen’s Street you walk past the doors to the honorable Maritime Museum and under an America’s Cup winning sailboat perched gleaming white atop jet-black steel cradles. Those sport engraved plaques explaining the highlights of Kiwi maritime engineering to the hordes of camera-wielding Chinese tourists that stream like genetically altered ants out of busses with blackened windows and towering cruise ships with microscopic port lights. But they hardly drag their well-groomed bodies past the Viaduct Harbor Bridge, which opens and closes like a medieval draw bridge to the sound of a muffled siren every time a fancy yacht wants to enter or leave this high-priced little harbor smack in the middle of town. Then you continue your stroll along a row of expensive looking restaurants, the Auckland Fish Market, a shallow fountain covered with a postmodern-looking stainless steel pergola and finally end up amongst neatly manicured landscaping framed by old storage tanks before coming to a dead end at the aptly named Silo Marina, where super yachts moor with thick black lines and sing their songs of singular greed, proudly wrapped in shining stainless steel and soaked in expensively oiled teak.
But let’s turn around and return to the drawbridge. You might have noticed on the way over a yellow-hulled sailboat just to the South of it, tied up facing and parallel to a row of steps leading down to the water. A red flag fluttered happily in the wind up in the rigging and had you paid attention you would have noticed a sign strung to the boom promising a circus performance at 3:00pm and at 5:00pm. That row of steps has now become the audience part of an outdoor theater. A small crowd is sitting down there chatting away and kids run up and down, some with dark-rimmed glasses, others with cones of dripping ice cream. More families, couples and lonesome wanderers are arriving still and soon settle down. The show must be about to begin!
The jittery notes of a silent movie era piano hammering away to jumpy ragtime rhythms lures us into a story of a very eager but clumsy couple trying to get their sailboat in shipshape. To the great amusement of the audience they live between almost falling overboard, getting snared in the many lines on deck, hitting their heads on poles, booms and the many other implements needed on a sailing vessel, closing the hatches on each other’s feet and generally blaming the other for their own endless and rather ruthless line of shortcomings. After their initial skirmishes fore, aft and athwart ship on deck they soon find themselves aloft moving about the wires of their sailboat’s rigging with the same ease as we normal mortals do on firm and steady ground. Dressed in egg yolk yellow jumpers and white baggy pants the acrobatic couple continue their hapless chores with the classic dilemma of clowns, who never seem to reach the illusive goal of completing the practical tasks before them, harvesting reams of empathy with their cadence of misfortunes from an audience torn between pity and roaring laughter. Midair pirouettes suspended by two strips of white fabric whirling in the breeze, gliding abseil maneuvers of tranquil elegance, ascending the shrouds like monkeys, grasping them with bare toes and hand over hand, trapeze-like swinging around the main mast, and again and again the guaranteed attention grabber of almost falls here and there are all part of a rustic but definitely delightful bag of circus tricks.
While not exactly revolutionizing the stubborn stereotypes of the sexes the story treads lightly and good-humored. It meanders from the standard but always a bit sluggish male prowess that desperately needs to take charge in spite of latent technical insecurities across the gaping gender divide to the gentle but witty female physical intelligence, which in spite of doing the wrong things pushes the project at hand in the right direction and never fails to accumulate a good pocket full of sympathy from audiences all over the world. Weary of her hilarious technical ineptitude he winds the story towards its bitter but amusing ending by assigning her to the ever-gruesome task on any sailor’s list of dreaded chores: scrubbing the decks. In a singular feat of controlled circus artistry she swings the bucket around to water the deck as the first act of her task, but instead dowses him from head to toe with the chilling wet their home so proudly floats upon. One last playfully serious pursuit around the deck ensues, to the general amusement of the audience performed in simulated slow motion, with his fierce intention to avenge the dripping assault and once that has been achieved set all the other things straight as well. On her end of the stick, while her coquettish don’t-you-follow-me flight from his raging jut of justice at first seems desperately in vain, luck, destiny or well-earned accomplishment gives her the upper hand in the end when catching up with him from behind. With a wide grin on her boyish face she dumps a second bucket full of salty water over his hampered self-esteem.
The acrobatic artist couple takes their bows to spirited applause from the audience. A stern lecture in a thick French accent then reminds the latter of the monetary value of the arts in general by encouraging generous donations to be dropped into the tin cans two young blond-haired ladies are promenading amongst the departing crowd. Those little ladies turn out to be the couple’s daughters aged six and thirteen, and an hour later inside the cozy belly of their floating theater platform Delfina and Franck tell us the long and winding story of their adventure, setting out from France seven years ago with a desire to conquer the world through their acrobatic arts, and on their own terms, as masters of their very own performance space. A hint of bitterness sours the conversation when they describe their struggle to convince the harbor and marina authorities of the value their artistic contribution delivers to the area, and coax them into backing off from their initial demand to be paid for the floating circus’ “use of their space”. A nonchalant mentioning of the standard fee for their performances of a good one and a half thousand dollars apparently did the trick in the end. The Kiwi’s general miserly nature also made rounds and rounds around the tiny settee with jokes about single five cent coins dropped in the donation pots, and those who apparently respond to the invitation of the rattling can in front of them with: “I’ve already put my donation in the other can over there”, that other pot turns out to be completely empty. Not having the slightest awareness of the real value of the arts, was how one mouth summed it up, while another chimed in: Generosity is not part of their culture, they feel that nothing is given to them, so everything needs to be measured and paid for. Shortcomings of the other cultures seem always easy to see and are much more lightly laughed about and benevolently overlooked as our very own. But as much as it might hurt to say it , this lack of perspective by no means sets them right!
I look at the sparrows in the city park hopping around on their short, stubby legs, eagerly scanning the grounds before them and diligently picking edible crumbs from amongst the grass and pebbles. Their little beaks and dark, shiny pinhead eyes don’t reveal any kind of rift between the content and the sad. They appear to be focused on the task at hand of finding their daily food without getting caught in the act. Each has a plumage with a slightly different pattern, which distinguishes it from the other; some are puffy and ruffled, some slim and slick. Before jumping to the standard conclusion that we humans are so very different from these simple creatures and delegate them to the lower rungs of an imaginary evolutionary latter leading up and up towards the glorious crown of creation, I glance at my own fellow creatures busy walking those same labyrinths of hard and always-noisy concrete streets at the feet of towering and skyscraping glass facades where the clouds and blues of the heavens reflect, making horizontal and vertical one and the same. Their eyes are hidden behind shades the same color and texture as the sparrows eyes and their gaze is also focused on one single task: manipulate with their deft fingertips the tiny glass screen of a little gadget in their hands, which in turn is connected by a shiny white cable to their ears. Some use only one hand, while the other clings to a purse, and their aptly painted thumbnail dances nervously through a pattern of pulsing contortions. Others while holding the apparatus with one hand use the fingers of the other to swipe, pinch, swoop and glide with cryptic curves inside a very delimited square.
It’s a special breed of the urban man, young, impeccably dressed in high fashion designs of low-life wear, and absolutely absent minded. They are clearly growing in numbers as about half the streetwalkers in downtown nowadays are fumbling on some sort of device in front of their faces. And they are able to do just about any of the outdoor activities the lesser advanced urban dwellers also do, like walking with or against the flow in the crowds, crossing busy multi-lane streets while navigating honking traffic, talking to their peers who limp along their sides with baseball cap and very cool attitudes, hanging on to the yellow handhelds dangling from he ceilings of wildly swerving busses, and even driving on their skateboard down rather steep sidewalks, all while resolving obviously very serious and complicated tasks on their smart phones and even smarter mini-tablets. Slightly hunched over while sleep walking through the urban landscape they update their facebook pages, tweet short snippets of their fractured thoughts out into cyberspace, blog endlessly about their heart aches and personality cramps, short sell their soaring high-tech stocks, inflate their wildly fluctuating popularity scores and filter massive attacks of unyielding spam messages with tight lips and frowned eyebrows, as if they had forgotten to lead their sluggish physical bodies to a purposeful destination.
It probably does not matter where in fact they are going. There is a singular circularity in their existence. Round and round they go, up and then down again always along Main Street, back and forth on a jittery and pulsating series of return trips. Those who manufacture these clever-minded gadgets must know well what they are doing by placing them in the hands of the modern youth. I cannot rid myself of the impression that these little thinking machines have an underlying mission of control. Once the individual’s attention has been captured and tied to a carefully tailored program that responds exclusively to a limited vocabulary of gestures to be repeated over and over, independent thought becomes a concept with little to no foothold in the messy realm of biological reality. Indifference towards the concrete facts of the flesh becomes a personality trait and ignorance towards the immediate environment a virtue of the wise. The world literally has shrunk to the miniature dimensions of a pixilated touch screen measured in nervous quirks of fleeting digits that drag predetermined intentions across oleophobically tempered glass.