Less, not more
It is Thursday night, about 9:00 P.M. I have just walked through Washington Square park, near New York University, and I am sitting at a sidewalk Cafe. I inhale deeply the clouds of marijuana smoke emanating from the group of NYU students sitting at the next table. I type away at my laptop. I love the anonymity of the city. In a little while, I'll get up and continue walking.
A couple of nights per week I like to walk aimlessly through these streets. I like not being seen by the people who stare at me, but who really look past me. I like drifting into my favorite bookstores, pulling down a volume of poetry and reading some verses that I can then repeat to myself as I stroll through the dark streets, the ones with names and not numbers. I observe the faces of strangers as I walk.
It is amazing all that one sees in those faces: fear, anger, worry, confusion, often even a kind of weird horror. I like to imagine what is happening in those lives to produce those thinly veiled and barely suppressed emotions. Also, I am struck by the sheer narcissim that develops in people living in a city like this. I am an excellent example of it.
Most New Yorkers, maybe most people these days, seem to live inside their heads. In the case of the simplest of us -- the men who are usually somewhat overweight, wearing expensive suits and large gold watches -- it is all-too easy to discern the fantasies that keep them going. I can almost predict the hour of the Friday night visit to the strip joint or favorite prostitute, the sporting event with "the guys from the office," the chats with the wife where money is traded for privacy, that is, in which the standard deal is made: he will go to the PTA meeting and stay awake; she won't ask annoying questions.
In the case of the more complex -- and this includes ALL women -- the yearnings may be darker, a craving for power or wealth may be visible in their faces. Often one senses a sexual hunger seething just under the surface calm in people, especially women. This was a surprising discovery for me. It is often the women who look at you hungrily.
A great deal of anger is visible too. By the age of forty, many city women seem to have a lot to be pissed off about -- and if you're not careful, it'll be your problem that they're not happy. Caution and politeness is the order of the day. Even the most casual statement may be scrutinized for a "typical" male lack of sensitivity or for political incorrectness, so it is wisest to pretend that you're Betty Friedan when you're introduced to a strange woman downtown.
The anger they feel must have a lot to do with the men or "significant others" in their lives. The assumption usually is that, being male, it is likely are that you are an "asshole" too. The burden of proof is on the men to prove that they aren't -- and in my case, I probably will not succeed in meeting that high burden, so I try to slide away unscathed.
I see a lot of pain in human faces here. Some more than others, of course, a few seem to bear MUCH MORE than others. I also see the defenses against that pain: numbness, deadness, apathy. People want to feel less, not more. There are many ways of accomplishing this, alcohol being only the most common.
It is difficult not to feel sorry for some of those faces.
I see how little, despite the chit-chat of city life, people really care about all the stuff the media thinks they care about. For instance, the election bores most of them to death. For most intelligent adults, American movies are ... well, "tasty and less filling." They're the cultural equivalents of potato chips. Books, if they read (and most people don't), are forgettable and trashy -- except for rare individuals who favor a particular serious writer or two, books mean nothing to people now.
Life is mostly about "dealing with things," a bunch of daily hassels, so that you can cope with more of them tomorrow. Children are a plus, a reason to get up in the morning and pretend that everything is fine. A magician capable of weaving a magic spell of excitement or mystery for these people could get them to follow him or her anywhere, a frightening thought. It may help to explain some of the horrors of the last century. Promise these people an adventure with some meaning at the end of it, and they're yours forever. Scary, really scary.
I am just the opposite. I want the boring life that will allow me to invent and write down the stories that will interest these people long enough to get their $7.95 for my paperback. (If I'm lucky, I'll finish one soon.)
If it is true that most people live lives of quiet desperation, then the loss of everything that gave meaning to their grandparents lives must have something to do with this widespread frustration. Religion means little to people now; and love is a dirty word or a cause for cynical laughter, often enough, although most of these same people still want it but don't think they can get it; politics means greed and corruption; money "comes and goes"; and sex is dangerous.
So what's left? Nothing much. Only more of the same. Another day in the life. Quiet desperation.
words: Friedrich, New York
photo: Eric Wrisley, Ohio (CautionaryTale)