Today I saw: men handing out free newspapers outside of the subway entrance. A woman taking one and throwing it away. A mass of curried meat bubbling in the morning fog on the long skillet of the halal cart. Vacant, oily and tired faces packed into the subway trains. Young, concerned looking men reading Proust and Ian McEwan, seeming unfulfilled and sexually desperate. A woman walking up some stairs ahead of me with swollen bulbous jellyfish-like feet bulging out of her sandals. A man running to catch his bus and the driver closing the doors a half second before he got there—the same man standing in front of the bus for five minutes and the bus driver honking at him to move, but still refusing to open the doors. The bus sideswiped the man and the man walking off, demoralized, defeated and stuck in the rain, having lost the battle of wills against the tyranny of a schedule. A frazzled looking Asian postal attendant who could barely speak English taking my package into her ripped, oily surgical-gloved hands. My office with about one hundred people sitting mute and inert in front of their long flat screens, at attention, immersed in their screens. Dunkin Donuts logos on coffee urns. No emails in my Outlook inbox. The massive smoking eyes of the Terminator: Salvation on a pasted advertisement twenty stories-high looking down at me in the gray fog.

          ***

Days like smoke, wisping away. Senseless, flat-lined excursions across the city in pursuit at night in search of something but never finding it. It’s flying by dull and comfortable and then at an unexpected moment, a rupture for no reason—a night without sleep, a phone call from a distressed friend, a car on fire on the side of the highway. She’s distraught, but it’s somehow better, more expressive than despair—her choice was the wrong one and now come to terms with the wasted time. She was ripped from the womb-like and familiar and now she needs to suckle wildly at the teat of human kindness. I can’t relate to her—she might as well be an alien. Her voice cracks and she cries—while she has her ruptural moment, it’s just another night for me, with the colors of the TV swirling behind her. The state of her disrepair is disturbing when put into context with all the others who were hoping to be saved by love—they weren’t, and they had to write the great sad songs. This seemed like cruel advice to give so instead I did my best to simulate comfort, cooing and calming until I could find a polite way to leave. Humans push into each other so much its hard to breathe—smothering out with no space, negativity, misgiving, and oppressive love. My days pass like photocopies, and I think she is the lucky one. I will forget this night.

         ***

At an informal gathering of friends, the conversations sound like advertisements. One acquaintance announces what he’s been working on recently, and why it’s so wonderful. Heads across the room nod in approval, mimicking his smile, picking up on his body language and copying it, nodding their heads only listening to the silent signals. Another clear-faced, young woman vibrating with the kind of career-minded ruthlessness you find in twenty-five year olds heralds her iPhone, selling it to us using almost exactly the same language the advertisers used to sell it to her. The heads nodding again, the convivial and agreeable atmosphere established. A consensus emerges—everything we’ve agreed upon being great is great. The rest doesn’t matter and probably isn’t important unless one among our rank brings it to the table and can vouch for it.

          ***

For a while, I attempt to keep pace. I rent seasons of their favorite television shows and watch them late into the night. I read the opinion and policy websites on the Internet so I can follow stories and be part of the ‘conversation’. I sit at the table trying to catch up with their magazines, trying to digest them, trying to feign interest. But eventually I catch myself staring out the window at the birds, unable to keep up with the frenzied cultural consumption that gives back so little, that so heartlessly defends its chalky boundaries of relevant and irrelevant, that always initiates the same old tired conversations about the same old tired people. I begin to feel that something is horribly wrong. While everyone races ahead to greater knowing, I reread the same old books—the ones that affirm the most life where you can feel how much of the author’s self has been poured in, how much the form has been molded to fit the author like a wetsuit. Reread and reabsorb—Everyone else has gotten fuller, and I have grown more empty. Less to talk about. Sometimes in meetings at work, I come to the verge of tears for no reason, and have to withhold and try to control my facial expression; Breathe life into the eyes and try to lift the face muscles into a fake smile that will comfort the person I’m speaking with—smile and nod, seem enthusiastic and interested. They will mimic the look and do the same back to me, prodding me on.

          ***

It is as if the slummy ambiance and general brutishness of New York has allowed the uncomfortably rich to feel a little bit better about their privileged condition, letting them feel as if they are ‘roughing it’ in small apartments, on the subway, in the thematically-designed ‘dive’ bars and restaurants. Everything lacks the sheen of sleek newness that usually accompanies possession of wealth. The newness, the isolation makes them uncomfortable, makes them feel hyperaware of their own class, so they stay here, dwelling among the poor, donning faux-rags to walk the streets. Only in New York can the rich can be like everyone else. Wealth can live in disguise—it can avoid being noticed as a diamond-encrusted ‘the other’.

           ***

<I>She’s sleeping standing up

She’s got no safety net

Falling falling down

Abysmal rotten at the bottom!

They say that these times are tough

But we never had any, to begin with!

They say these are the worst of times

But we never had nothing to begin with!

 

The worst thing about working

is being stuck waiting

The terrarium of windows

The panopticon of glowing screens

We made the compromise!

We sacrificed desire!

To see what the others saw!

Sacrificing love

and chose the garbage disposal unit

Sacrificing love

To shake their rotten hand!

Sacrificing love

You had a motto!

Who's that face against the window?

          ***

People, maggot-like in their need to be all over each other, to be constantly involved, constantly interacting. Something has snapped inside. I parse them out, turning down invitation s to do things, keeping interactions at a bare minimum, trying to not people monopolize my days. Reading, spending time with the best side of human effort becomes preferable to the actual flesh and blood people, in the way that one imagines a perfect lover and soul mate, perfectly fulfilling. Certain writers leave nothing but gray ash in your mouth. Time and energy like anchors dragging down, obscuring natural purpose. Then a rush off to throw yourself into some meaningless, forgettable work. We will be fooled again!

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© 2009

The Maw

Aaron Lake Smith