On the misery and limbo of waiting places
A guest essay from the extraordinary Zito Madu. Plus, disinformation on Ukraine in Taiwan, Singapore, and China
We’re so honored to share this essay by Zito Madu with you.
We first learned of Zito’s work through one of our interviewees, Nomi Stolzenberg, and have been inspired ever since. What’s striking is his versatility: he can write everything from profiles of professional basketball players to searching personal essays to genre-bending short stories. His oeuvre is varied, surprising, and expansive.
This piece reflects his range. It’s “about” waiting places and poverty but also about Samuel Beckett, the American dream, public spaces, and the dignity of parents who try their hardest to expand our worlds. Zito reflects on the intentional discomfort imposed on the poor. In one passage about the Port Authority, he writes, “Thinking of those people—especially the ones whom police often come in and remove, the ones who aren’t waiting to go anywhere but need a place to rest—I know the misery that surrounds them is engineered.”
If you’re interested in reading Zito’s other work, we loved especially this piece on Miyazaki and Kiki’s Delivery Service and an essay on the quietness of laundromats. These pieces reflect a meditative and patient voice that never resorts to easy outrage. We also loved this joyous reflection on Steph Curry that celebrates his return from injury. (Upon reading it, Albert, who also loves Curry, said, “I feel seen”). You can also check out Zito’s tweets, which are refreshingly independent & iconoclastic.
As always, we’re grateful to readers for sharing their responses. What are your experiences with waiting, public spaces that produce discomfort or misery, families that have sought to expand your world, or anything else? Thank you as always and stay in touch.
Zito Madu on the misery and limbo of waiting places
One of my favorite pictures of my youngest brother, Franklin, was taken at the Cleveland Greyhound bus terminal, the point of real departure when you travel from Detroit. It’s the hub where you transfer to different buses: you take the bus from Detroit to Cleveland, and from Cleveland to the world.
The picture doesn’t exist anywhere anymore, because it was taken on a camera phone in the mid 2000s, but it’s permanent in my mind. I don’t have to close my eyes to see it clearly. In it, Franklin is a child wearing a coat that’s bigger than he is, which is normal for a lot of poor children with siblings: clothes get passed down and you grow into them to make them yours. He’s looking up at me, sideways to his right, and his hand in his mouth. He’s not chewing anything; he just has his hand in his mouth, as children tend to.
I took this picture as our family was traveling to Disney World. Going from Detroit to Orlando by bus takes no less than twenty-nine hours. Getting to Cleveland is the easy part.
The trip was expensive for us at the time. We were a family of eight, with six kids, and our parents took a big financial hit to make it possible. Taking the Greyhound for a total of sixty hours was the only way we could reasonably travel back then.
It was my father’s idea to go. He had somehow won tickets to Disney World and he was determined that his children should see it while we were young.
When I was young, I learned that we were poor slowly and through interactions with other kids. Those kids weren’t necessarily rich; after all, we’d moved from a village in Nigeria to Detroit in the late ’90s, so the people in our area were also poor. They just had more than we did. Sometimes the more was material, sometimes it was about experiences and imagination. I would go over to someone’s house and see everything they had that we didn’t: the video games, the bigger and more modern TV, the space and many rooms of their home.
At school I would hear kids talking about going to the movies and I’d have to be quiet because I’d never been to a theater. They would talk about going out of state to see their families, and I’d realize I’d never been out of state. These moments were painful eye-openings, in the sense that the things in my life that I had seen as natural, inconsequential, started to feel like elements of impoverishment. We had a TV, but now I knew it was inferior, even to the TVs of other poor people.
While I had to learn to see the poverty of my world, my father knew it and carried it with him from the moment we arrived. The knowledge hung over him, agitated him every second. He worked odd jobs, answering to people who disrespected him—the kind of people who would have answered to him back home—and he gave up the idea of rest and comfort in order to provide for his family. My mother did the same, but the difference between them was that my mother was happy as long as she had her children and enough to give them a happy life. Even now, she sounds like the mythical Niobe when she talks about the riches of her children.
But just as I saw the things we didn’t have, my father saw the life he wasn’t providing for his family, and it felt to him like a failure. He saw his friends and colleagues taking their children on trips, buying their kids what they wanted, returning to their spacious homes. It gnawed at him. He didn’t particularly want what other people had. He was never envious. Instead, he wanted to give us a world where we could live expansive lives.
Because of this, my father accommodated the adventures of our childhood, even if he often bemoaned the cost in money and time. No matter what sports and extracurricular activities we wanted to do, no matter the cost—it added up for six children—he grumbled and signed off. My older brother and I played soccer, one sister did tennis, the other was a majorette, the second-to-last son liked academic games, and Franklin would go through the gamut of sports: soccer, baseball, golf, football.
Taking us to DisneyWorld was one of his ways of making sure we had a full childhood. At the real start of that trip, after the three-hour ride to Cleveland, while we waited for the next bus—the wait would be longer than it took to get to Cleveland—I pulled out my phone to take a picture of Franklin because he looked so bewildered by the whole experience. As I steadied the camera, he peered into it with the face and eyes I associate with the world’s waiting places of the world.
What’s key to me about the picture is the expression on Franklin’s face: an expression of tiredness and uncertainty. A sort of displacement and lostness. It’s the face of someone in limbo. Franklin was waiting with his family to go somewhere he didn’t know, on a trip he didn’t understand. He was already exhausted from the first bus ride, and the wait for the second was so long he must have felt that it would never end. My father kept reassuring us that the next bus was on the way, but then another hour would pass without it arriving.
The term waiting places is a bit nebulous, but in my mind they’re stations and terminals where people find themselves before they can leave by bus, train, or plane.
Many waiting places are miserable, and I think their misery is important. With enough money, waiting becomes almost optional—or, rather, much of its misery can be removed. Buses will always be delayed, flights will always be canceled, but someone who has the money can change bookings, find an alternative way to travel, or simply find a place to sleep that’s not the floor. Of course, when someone has the money, you’ll rarely find them waiting for a ten-hour Greyhound trip. Travel is exhausting and irritating, but as with many things your station in life determines how much of the burden you bear.
The suffocating dullness of bus travel—of those waiting places—became very clear to me at that Cleveland station. The disgusting brownness of everything. The hard metal benches. The uncomfortable tables. The junk food. But most of all, the sense of being in limbo. That exhaustion and lostness. Being there for so many hours felt like being displaced from time. All around me were people lying on the floor, sleeping at tables, walking around with no real purpose but to walk around, as if they needed to do something to remember they were still alive.
For years, I was one of those people. Waiting for the next bus and, after waiting so long, forgetting what I was waiting for, until a distorted voice announced over the broken public address speakers that the bus to wherever I was going had arrived.
The Cleveland Greyhound station reminds me of that famous graduation gift of a book by Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! For as much as the book is a wonderful story about growing up, adventure, and the possibilities that await the reader, it also perfectly captures the deadening sense of displacement and limbo of waiting places:
You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place...
...for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
For a long time, in my mind, the Cleveland terminal and its misery stood in for the idea of Cleveland itself. Even now I can’t think of the city without immediately remembering that circle of limbo. For the second waiting place, though, that relationship is flipped.
Before I arrived at Port Authority in New York, I had absorbed so many myths about the city’s greatness from television and music. New York was supposed to be the greatest city in the world. And yet when I first visited, at fifteen, before I saw the rest of the city, I experienced a waiting place worse than that Cleveland bus terminal.
I was born in a village in Nigeria and grew up poor in Detroit, and the thing about poverty is that, whether you see it or not, it narrows your world and your possibilities. No matter how imaginative a child you are, the day-to-day reality is constricted in ways you don’t even understand until you manage to escape—or at least get to peek outside. I remember hearing media friends who grew up wealthier talk about their parents’ vacation homes and summer trips to Europe when they were young, and being amazed at how different their lives had been. That those things had been possible for them at that age.
The New York trip would mirror my first trip to London some years later. Both were born from the frustration of looking around my world, seeing where I was headed, asking myself whether this was all there was, and finally taking whatever money I had and spending it on a ticket. Like my father taking the whole family to Disney World: not to gain anything material, but to be able to witness the place. To know that these places are real. To know that realness with my eyes, with my whole body and mind. Both times, I took the chance to let myself discover, in a material sense, that there were other worlds out there.
The problem with such journeys is the confusion of the real. So much of what’s sold to people who haven’t been to places like New York and London is an idea, most often sold by industries that profit from luring those people to visit and spend their money. Industries that show no remorse in hiding the lives and poverty that encroach on the fantasy. Sometimes the people who live in those places even buy into the fantasy themselves, as a point of pride, a way to turn the reality into something more heroic. The fantasy I went to New York with was shattered as soon as I got off the bus and entered another waiting place of misery.
What shocked me the most about Port Authority wasn’t the smell, or the bodies of so many people lying and wandering around, or the general misery. I’d seen all that before. I was part of that mass of waiting people. What surprised me was not having anywhere to sit. I got off the bus and wanted to rest somewhere, to regroup before figuring out how to get to my destination in Brooklyn and to charge my phone. After looking around, I realized that there were only a few seats, and those seats were occupied because there were so many people in the terminal already. That’s why others were sitting on their bags, lying on the floor, eating or otherwise going about their business. Eventually I joined them, sitting on my bag next to a free wall charger.
Port Authority and its lack of seats remind me of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot: in the play, Vladimir and Estragon mostly stand and walk around, and when they sit it’s on the low mound that Estragon is sitting on to begin the play. There are no other seats except for Pozzo’s folding stool which is moved, knocked over and set right again. At one point Pozzo looks at it, and says, “I'd very much like to sit down, but I don't quite know how to go about it.” When he does sit down after Estragon pleads with him, he quickly gets up again. They’re in limbo, waiting, and their misery and existential turmoil are made worse by the lack of physical comfort or rest.
Port Authority follows the same cruelty by design. It’s no bog. It’s a vast waiting place, a huge building with lots of space where thousands of people go and come each day, with many shops and places for people to spend their money—but hardly anywhere where those thousands can rest comfortably. Tens of millions of dollars to build, and even more to keep renovating it, yet more seating is out of the question.
Thinking of those people—especially the ones whom police often come in and remove, the ones who aren’t waiting to go anywhere but need a place to rest—I know the misery that surrounds them is engineered. The people at Port Authority are the people who need to use it. The same goes for the Cleveland Greyhound terminal: those buses are essential because they’re affordable. And the attitude toward these people is to make sure their discomfort and exhaustion are heightened. To make sure they can’t truly rest. I went to New York to see a new world, and I found a further education in something I already knew deeply.
These aren’t the only waiting places I’ve been. I’ve slept through the night in airports; I’ve slept outside a few times while waiting for buses. I used to have to wait for hours to be picked up, and once I walked the six miles home from my high school because the infamously unreliable Detroit bus didn’t come in the few hours I spent waiting.
Anyone who’s traveled and been poor has had to use public transport to get around a city, a state, a country—they’ve known many waiting places and the different miseries. And they can tell you which ones are the soul-crushing ones.
I don’t think my father saw the Cleveland station the same way that I did. His waiting place wasn’t a physical space. Like many poor people, it was his condition. He worked hard every day, giving his body and his life to make a better life for his children, and what frustrated him endlessly was the limbo of poverty. One financial crisis could undo a year’s work. And even though he believed there would be an eventual escape—because he needed to believe it in order to keep working—he was also maddened by the sense that nothing ever seemed to change. He would wait and wait, and hear that the bus was on its way to take him and his family into the kind of lives he wanted us to have, but then another year would pass and nothing would be different.
While I was taking that picture of Franklin, my father was going around talking to the gate agents about where our bus was. He kept asking them for updates. He was anxious. Not for himself, but for us. He knew the waiting was taking a toll on his family, especially the younger children. The trip hadn’t really started and everyone’s eyes were already glazed over. He bought us food, drinks, and candy, anything to make the time as bearable as possible. He kept badgering the agents, as if he could force time to speed up through sheer will and care. As if he could make the waiting stop. But he didn’t have that power. All he could do was to try and make us comfortable in the misery.
When we got really tired, my father would set our bags on the ground as makeshift beds. He would tell us to lie down and sleep for a while. It was irritating that though the waiting was long, the times of rest were short and fragmented—which only made the waiting even more unbearable. After laying down on the hard floor, and convincing your body that it is comfortable enough to sleep on, you’d have to get back up to wait in line to get on the next bus, which would then take you to a station as dull and lifeless as the one before. Then the waiting would begin again.
Disinformation on Ukraine
We’re still collecting reader replies to our most recent piece on disinformation on Ukraine in Taiwan. Thanks to readers for sharing your stories. Here are some recent links:
Ian Chong, along with Cherian George and Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, on competing media narratives of Ukraine in Singapore
The Reporter on the content mill empire that churns out disinformation in Taiwan
William Yang on how Russian propaganda dominates Chinese social media
Yao Lin on how provincial governments in China require university teachers to attend “lectures correcting one’s thought,” where they learn that Russian military action is legitimate:
Book Club: Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit and Lisa Hsiao Chen’s Activities of Daily Living
It was so wonderful to talk to everyone about Homeland Elegies and The Brothers Karamazov! We’re both traveling at the end of April. Forgive the delay in book club. In May we’ll read Siobhan Phillips’s Benefit. In June we’ll read Lisa Hsiao Chen’s Activities of Daily Living. Michelle has read these novels and loved them both, and we’re excited to discuss with you.