America Two: Walking Through Ghost Towns

Seeing the World Through Signs and Screens

November 2, 2020

I occasionally get random nosebleeds, while sitting at my desk or sleeping. Have done since I was a kid. It’s nothing to worry about. In Denmark, though, it was always my left nostril. In the US, it's the right.*

They drive on the right side of the road over here. That’s not that surprising; I knew that. It’s also not that surprising that there are a lot of cars, and they’re very big. I do not think I’ve seen a single two-door—or god forbid, a SmartCar—over here. The streets are wide and open, you don't need something small.
And at the same time, they are empty. Not of cars, but of pedestrians.

Most of the time I cross the crossing nearby my house—and it’s not a small crossing by European standards—I’m often the only one causing the foot-lights to turn on at all. There might be one other person. On a wild day, two, and but they're always together. But three? That’s like seeing a SmartCar. I can frequently not see another single person on the street I'm on (depending on the street, granted).

I know this is exacerbated by the pandemic. People don’t go outside as much in general right now. There’s masks. One person said “thank you” because I took a berth around him (I wasn’t wearing a mask, he was).

Daily life has set in quickly. I work on my studies (I enjoy the work, too, immensely, so far, so it is not a sad thing). I shop. I make food. I sleep. I go out, occasionally, on the rare event that something happens. But so far, I am currently still immobilized. I don’t have a car, and I don’t have a bike. So getting around is… harder, than I’m used to. It’s possible, there are buses. They exist. Somewhere, in the nebulous. On websites, that proclaim you can buy tickets. I think i remember seeing one, but it's memory, and not fact. If I had a student ID I could ride them for free, supposedly. But to get that I need to go to campus. Which is farther away than I can walk.

You see the problem.

There’s life out there somewhere. I did go to campus, and explored it, as a first informal meetup for a couple of us new students. On a Sunday (so the ID store wasn't open), with masks, walking around in the open. It was empty. Very empty.

And big. Beautiful. Green. Weaving in between the forests, like an Elvish village.


And abandoned. You could see the ghosts, the room—the possibility—of people. Benches, stairs, open spaces, a theatre in an old quarry, pathways snaking themselves between leaves, imprinted by years and years of students, none of which we could see.

It was great to see. It was sad to see. I... I wish I was there right now. That I was taking classes there. I should’ve been.


Instead I’m at home, watching my friends back in Europe go offline one by one.

Woah, okay that sounds really sad.
It… it kinda is. This is not an uncommon sight:

(...ignore the funny name my friends gave me)

In fact, it happens every day.

Timezones are weird. I knew what this meant. I’ve been very used to acclimatizing to Californian time-zones from Europe. Catching “morning” streams in the afternoon. Staying up late to see tournaments, hoping I could get to the finals before I fell asleep. Or if not, catching the replay early the next day. I've lived online my whole life, adjusting to seeing the world through monitors.

Or rather, I thought I knew what it meant. But there’s a difference between seeing the streams you used to see in the afternoon, in the actual morning when they happen, rather than askew. Suddenly, that stream doesn’t happen in the evening. Suddenly, all the streams, all the people I’m used to catching just before bed… have already happened.

I’ve been surprised how few of the streamers I used to see aren’t actually on in the evenings here. I guess I expected them to? But, why would they be? It's their day-job. It was never evening here when I watched them, but watching them was connected to evenings, for me. My patterns are off.

another from campus because it was so nice.

There are also benefits. There are things I couldn’t have caught in Denmark that are now easy to access here. I got home from shopping and saw that AOC—yes, the Congresswoman—was playing the video game “Among Us” on Twitch for 400.000 viewers. And I saw it live, as it blossomed into existence, instead of hearing about it in the early morning the next day. It was fun, and wild, and a bit unbelievable. It was the exact kind of magic live streaming can create, and it is the kind of thing that works best when you are there, live, to see it.

But the rhythm for the internet I am used to is different—people are awake and talking at other times than I am used to, and it takes some getting used to.
In these days, where the majority of the social contact with other people than my three roommates (which, I am grateful for that in-person contact!), happens through screens, I have been surprised how different it has felt to interact with the same systems that I’m used to, without a 9 hour differential in between. And then feeling that 9 hour differential the other way for those that I used to interact with in “real-time”.

If I want to play games with my euro-friends that has to be during lunch. And I have to go back to work after.
I’m trying to live in two time-zones at once, and it’s causing me to feel… disjointed.

At the same time, as my final note, there’s a tension here. Physically. It’s hard to feel, because there are so few people to emanate it, but it’s there. Among all the Halloween dressing on the houses there are other things. Black Lives Matter posters. Pride flags. Election nominee signs. I get ads on YouTube for remembering to vote, or to tell me what to vote for. It’s soon. It feels like an egg as it cracks. If the ground was cracking last time this is palpable. And yet, primarily, as all other things right now, visible through a blinking box. Through signs of people in the world, without the people themselves. They left remnants, traces of their former actions, while their current ones remain behind glass.

It's there, among the huge everything. Signs of allegiance. Quiet, yet loud.

While visiting The UCSC Campus, one of the people, who’d been an undergraduate here, and so knew the place, took us to a place call the “Rock Garden”, a little off campus in a nearby park.


It is a collection of student-made cairns with small messages in them. Some of them are jokes. Some are love-notes. Some are kind hopes for the future, or positive messages about life. They are all in rocks, placed by someone who used to exist—who only is here through what they did, and not what they do.

It's all very fitting. I've seen most of America through monitors, through signs, through messages, through media; asynchronous and real. Coming here now didn't change that. All the stories are still stories; the timing is just off, the space more present. The ghosts a bit closer.

*This is nonsense, I know. I must just be misremembering, but I clearly remember it always being the left nostril before. I visibly stared at myself in the mirror when I realized what nostril it was this time. And it fits the off-phase feeling this all has right now.

This is the second in a series of blogs about my experiences with moving to America.
If you missed it, I've moved from Denmark to Santa Cruz, CA, to study for at PhD in Computational Media--I'll be working with Interactive storytelling and how games tell stories, which I'm extremely excited about, but I couldn't have picked a weirder time to do it. So these blogs are a bit of a way to maintain sanity about it. Hopefully you're ok with them getting a little metaphorical at times; I can't help it.

Also, one funny story that didn’t fit the above:

I was going to get a bank account, which I found out I could only do in person, because I don’t have the appropriate numbers. I needed a Social Security Number (SSN) to do it easily, but I can’t get that yet. Or I needed an ITIN (a tax-number). That I don't have yet, either.

However, I could get a bank account without them. So said the school’s information.
I wrote the bank to ask, and they replied, after a week, that I did not need an SSN or an ITIN.
Because it took a week, I also called and asked in the meantime, and she said I did not need an SSN or an ITIN.

I go to the bank in person, show them my passport.

He says: “You need an SSN or an ITIN, sorry.”

I… was a little puzzled. But thank god I had the email (and a now working sim card) so I could pull up the email on my phone to show him that a representative from this very bank had told me the opposite.

His turn to be puzzled. He went in, and made some “phonecalls” (he said, I have no idea what he did). But because I wasn’t allowed in the bank yet, because of covid, I was told to wait outside—for which they took a chair from inside the bank, and placed on the curb.

It took about 10 minutes, and he came out and handed me a form I needed to fill and then I got it done easily.

The view from my waiting chair.