If you remember the game SimCity that used to come preloaded with Apple computers in the 1900s, you will be able to picture the random piece of terrain you were assigned upon which to would build your dream city. You will think of it when you visit places like Washington, DC’s National Harbor, which I have written about previously, where I just spent several days at a conference.
You got your land and you built a coal or nuclear power plant. You built the electric grid and laid down roads, which would eventually swarm with ant-like traffic. You put down units of housing which might become trash-strewn lots with high crime rates or grow into dark glass towers. You could check the stats and the growth rate, add industrial units if jobs were needed. Periodically you would receive feedback: “Residents demand a stadium” or there might be an explosion at the nuclear plant, with little particles of radioactivity smudging out bits of the roads or buildings.
A quarter of a century later, I remember it fondly. It preceded the Sims, whose tacky condos and pets and relationships would corrupt what may have been a perfect game. A current iteration exists, which we gave the Older Daughter for Christmas, called Roller Coaster Tycoon.
National Harbor has no public transportation, but they seem to have gotten away with it, like the Walrus and the Carpenter in the poem, who lure the baby oysters out to nowhere and eat them.
On arrival there are girls in leotards or with exposed midriffs and starched glittery bows and gold lipstick and tubercular blooms of red upon the cheek. No, not conference entertainment, well, sort of, but cheerleaders there for some kind of convention. Teams of parents are wearing baggy sponsorship T-shirts or odd shades of green. In we filter, with our tote bags and a different shade of enthusiasm.
The hotel is set, as the name suggests, at the edge of a harbor. It is hard to say where the magical world of the hotel ends, with its townhouses within an atrium, and the fake town beyond the fields of landscaped cabbages begins. There is an ice rink and a miniature Stonehenge set by the side of a road, themed restaurants, and ragged metal statuary. You leave the hotel and enter one of the eight-lane highways that connect Maryland, Virginia and “the District.” The sign for Maryland says, “Enjoy your visit.” Why not something about the state’s assets or its beauty. Why not, “Welcome home”?
I am not staying at the hotel, but with friends from London who now live in Maryland, in an apartment building. It is filled with people, young people, young people in duffel coats. An older guy, maybe in his 30s, stops by the concierge desk: losing his hair, dark clothes and dark sneakers with a day-glo green sole. He’s asking the concierge about his son. “He’s in North Carolina?”
“No,” the concierge says, “he’s in Florida.”
“That’s right,” says the man, “That’s correct,” as if he were administering some kind of test. Later he will tell people about the conversation, in passing. Let it be noted that he is good with people, he makes an effort.
A woman is in the process of leaving her apartment, already bundled into a belted black down coat, talking on the phone as she gets her keys. The door is ajar and I see her showroom-style kitchen, all burled granite and wood and halogen. I had to make a note of my friends’ apartment number so that I could find my way back, like a parking bay for people. I did not want to find myself pushing random buttons in the elevator wondering, Where might they live?
I had forgotten what it is like to live in an apartment building. The elevator door slides open like a curtain, each passenger a new act. You can hear their conversations under the doors, their phones ringing through the walls. In the elevator are minutes from the latest tenants meeting. The last item on the agenda is Disposal of Household Grease: Best Practices.
There are more cabbages in my friends’ neighborhood, arranged in planters like profiteroles. Here we have music playing on the street and people eating Saturday lunch in restaurants and the educational children’s toy shop and the posh wine shop and a place that sells pernickety sweaters and Nordic fashion. They are having a closing down sale and before I enter the shop I know that these are going to be the kind of clothes I hate and they will be, even on final sale, too expensive.
“Oh,” remarks one of the sales people/owners as I enter, “you brought wine.”
Maryland no longer hands out plastic bags in shops.
The clothes were, as I expected, awful.
Everything is bright and pretty (except the cabbages. The cabbages are silly.)
In the morning, my friend who is attending the same conference, drives us through the fog back to the fake town.
If you were the development tycoon and you could build anything, my friend asks, is this really the best you could come up with? The house in the atrium, he says, is based on the template of the hotel chain, a replica of a replica of a replica. We’re just lost in the fog with the cheerleaders and the teddy bears and the statuary that commemorates and represents the need to have a statue in this location because it’s the kind of thing a real place might have. A large stone, or more likely fiberglass cast to resemble stone, arm with a grasping hand reaches out of the bay.
Imagine the empty terrain. The cursor blinks, waiting for you to select your tool, to build the roads and create the zones (commercial, industrial, residential). Visitors demand an experience.
What do we bring home with us, then? My friends’ daughter is four. She likes princess dresses, Swan Lake and reversals. It was a bear. No, it was a monkey. It’s on your head. It is a froggy day, we tell her.
I have displaced her from her room. At night I dream that I am on a London bus with my daughters. It is rainy and winter. As we alight, I realize that we have a son. He is hiding under one of the seats and I scoop him up wondering how it is possible that I have been, for years, telling people that we have two children when we have three, girls when we also have a boy. What does it mean that I have forgotten my son? And that I almost left him hiding on a bus?
Away from your family you are displaced. As a single entity attending a conference I appear to be a whole when I am a part. The younger daughter sends the occasional text as do friends and former colleagues from London as we search for each other at break, each of us now making our way in the new world, still finding strange this new, more affluent and referential version of America.
The cabbages, weather-resistant, practical, nutritious, inexpensive and with their blooms of color, could sustain us should the hotel run out of food or the beltway close, should something occur that is just beyond the imagination, like a fiberglass monster rising from the water. Oh, wait, that was their idea.
In SimCity, you were the king with your cursor, planting fields of cabbages to increase the commercial value of your property. I had never imagined myself as a resident.