We are having something of a warm snap in January here. It has gotten above freezing every day for the last few days; the sun melts the snow, leaving puddles on the ground, which overnight freeze into smooth, treacherous rinks. In the middle of the sidewalk in Lionshead I almost walk over a child of three or four. He is enthralled, excitedly staring and pointing at the ground, his joy so nearly frantic that he is literally bouncing up and down. “Look,” he calls to his mother, ten feet or so ahead. “Mom, look!” His tone is urgent, it says look now, not later and not soon but now because what if this never happens ever again in all of time? “LOOK, Mommy, look! It’s ice!” Mom does not appear to hear him. He tries again. “Ice!!!!” But no luck, and the time is past: he runs to catch up. I continue down my back path where the robins sing. The snow is melting in the four o’ clock rays made sharper by the lack of an extra mile and a half of air. There is a little grass visible at the edge of the walk, and realizing that the boundary can only recede until it snows again, I note its exact shape and take some joy in its changes. Look, I think to myself: something that we walk on, something that is everywhere, something that is commonplace, something that is beautiful.
Behind the Ritz in Lionshead, where the cheapest available room for two people this week will fetch $1,500 before taxes, there is a street with no name, a cobbled path winding under aspens and past the pool, alongside Luxury Residences with real front doors. Technically this path, like so many possible paths in Vail, is for Homeowners And Paying Guests Only, but sometimes on my way from the parking lot to the gondola I take this shortcut anyway. Partially it is to shave about 200 feet off of the walk, but primarily it is because it is nice to walk under the aspens and by the real front doors, even if they are only somebody’s door for two months, instead of on the sidewalk past the grandfather bear statue where buses and snowplows spit diesel fumes and tire chain noises.
Today I walk this path alone because Adam, with whom I am skiing on our mutual day off, forgot his gloves at home and had to return to Avon. Because I do not have to work, I am here at the late hour of 9:30 instead of 7:00, and it is light on the eastward walk. Somewhat surprisingly, the town still seems sleepy, because it is a back street: there is no one in the pool, there is no one walking ahead of or behind me. A lone Homeowner sweeps his front walk which only his five neighbors, and I suppose everyone in the Ritz’s pool, is technically supposed to be able to see. It is silent.
No, it is not silent: there is a twitter, a cascading chuckle of birds. In the bare hibernating aspens on my left and on my right there is a flurry of motion, maybe twenty or thirty little songbirds hopping and fluttering from tree to tree. Unlike the birds I am used to they do not move in a single abrupt migration, but one by one and two by two, the ones in the back Indian-running up to the front, and I realize that they are following me, or rather, leading the way. The path is about eight hundred feet long from where it leaves the Frontage Road to where it jogs left and up the stairs to the Marriott, and yet the birds are always just ten, twenty feet ahead of me, crisscrossing over the walkway, singing when they fly. They are acutely aware of my presence, I can tell: they look me in the eye, one after the other, unsure what I am doing but nonetheless confident that I am no great threat. I feel myself in an aviary.
I think they are robins, but don’t robins go south for winter? Their little red breasts and brown heads are unmistakable, though, and if robins are not supposed to be here then I suppose nobody told this little band of troubadours. I am nearly at the end of the path and they are still serenading me. It is surreal, but I don’t think about it too hard for fear my new friends will dissipate in a puff of feathers and imagination. A lone magpie, three times the size of the rest of them and decked out in half-elegant, half-gaudy tuxedo black and white, rests his wings in one of the pines ahead, then to my side, and finally behind, not joining the transient robins and not in the least perturbed by my passing. I reach the Marriott steps and as quickly as they were there, the birds are no longer. I am not aware of them leaving, or staying where they are as I travel on, or turning around and going back to bother the sweeping Homeowner: even though I am paying attention to nothing but the stones under my feet and the chirping of the birds, I am only aware of a moment at which they have been gone for some time. I wonder, briefly, if they were real and decide it doesn’t matter, but I am pretty sure they were.
Reaching Lionshead Place there are now a few people walking around, skis slung over shoulders, walking the awkward walk of someone who is not used to ski boots (they are always awkward, only somewhat less so after practice), and their density increases as I near the gondola terminal. On the gondola I close my eyes and unashamedly eavesdrop on my fellow passengers, just like you might do on the subway, only more intimate. It is truly amazing what people will say to each other in a five-foot cube they share with strangers.
or, Where Can I Get a Goddamn Falafel At 3:43 In the Morning?
or, Where Can I Get a Goddamn Falafel Period?
“Palmyra!” I exclaim. “You know Palmyra?” the bluejacket asks me. Workers here are color-coded, like parts of a machine. Light blue means ski instructor. Dark blue, lift operator, “liftie” colloquially. Red is generally ski patrol (“generally” because there seem to be exceptions, which still confuse me), and black is mountain services, including warehouse and maintenance. Fluorescent green is the photographers. We don’t get jackets at Eagle’s Nest, since we only work indoors, but everyone else’s jacket and pants are emblazoned with HELLY HANSEN H/H in at least three places, including down the side of the leg like a Madison Avenue tuxedo stripe. When I first saw the logo I thought it was Kelly misspelled, and then thought it was an odd name for a winterwear designer, but now I realize it is only Norwegian.
But I digress. “Yeah, man,” I tell my ski school teacher, “I’m from Syracuse.” “Oh,” he says dryly. “Cool.” We do not interact further while I make his Colorado Club (sourdough turkey bacon Swiss toast it serve the next customer take it out chipotle sauce “Lettuce, tomato, onion?” no onion stick itcutitchipspickleDONE) and after that it is only a parting “Have a nice day.” He nods.
I’m from Syracuse, it sticks in my head all day. My nametag says it: “Syracuse NY”. This is my defining locale. “Where are you from?” an Italian asks me. “New York,” I say. But quickly, “Upstate. I lived in the city for a few years, but I grew up about five hours away.” Why is it different now? What is different about it? But it is so different.
I’ve written here before about my relationship to places, and in particular to my two cities in New York State, Syracuse and the other one. What is the connection to a place? I am there and then I’m gone, and when I’m there I’m there, and when I’m gone it sometimes hits me that yeah, I did use to live in New York, I did use to commute four-and-a-half miles by bicycle each way and not only that I identified as a biker, more for sure than I identified as American, maybe more than I identified as a student. Yeah, remember that, I did use to live in a house called the Shtetl, yeah I did sometimes when I was bored on Thursday afternoons use to go to Apple with Nate where they had $3 drafts for happy hour, yeah I did use to eat Thai food more than hamburgers, yeah it was a lot more I sometimes didn’t have a hamburger for a couple of months.
Yeah, I’m not exaggerating when I say I wasn’t even in a car for four, five months at a time, yeah I did use to think traveling eight miles in thirty minutes was the coolest thing ever, yeah, I was there for the hurricane. It’s all in there, it all happened, none of it’s been undone. And yeah, yeah, it’s true, I did use to say New York was my hometown, I was from there, I was born there after all at St. Vincent’s on Seventh and 11th, there was even a time when I cared that you spelled out the avenue and wrote the digits for the street, who cares about that?
This probably sounds stupid. I mean, if I’m asking why do I tell people I’m from Syracuse and not the city, the answer is obviously because it’s true, stupid. I lived in Syracuse full-time for over sixteen years, I was in the city for eight or nine months a year for four. It shouldn’t be that hard,
but remember Switzerland, remembering telling someone (I forget who) in R1 that what it seemed at the time was the most important thing I was learning at CERN was not the mass of the top quark, was not coding in ROOT, was not anything about the modern high-energy physics culture or even how to speak French to normal people, but was that I can’t stay away from the city, was that I was in love with the city, that “I do not mean love in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again,” that it was maybe a miserable, self-destructive, dependent, trapping love but good God, man, I was getting the shakes just thinking about being back. (The shakes, of course, were not actually because of thinking about being back in New York – but I suppose one can never be sure.)
So that’s what it was, then: it’s not that I’ve stopped saying “I am from New York City” even though it’s true: it’s that I’ve stopped saying “I am from New York City” because it’s a lie. No, that’s wrong, too. I’ve stopped saying it, and it’s a lie, but that’s not why I’ve stopped saying it.
What did New York do to me? I cannot be the only one asking this question.
I am rereading this post and it has only a little left to do with its original intention and title. The part of me that wants to “work on my writing,” whatever that means, thinks I should spend some time revising it and reworking it and making it make sense, but that’s never been how this blog worked, that’s never been the point. What did New York do to me? When you get out of an intense live-in relationship there is this little period where you are readjusting, reorganizing, re-imagining, re-understanding, or should I say understanding for the first time, and for a little bit at least nothing at all makes sense. “I don’t even know how to make an omelet anymore,” I wrote once, that might have been in high school but the feeling is familiar. If there is anything I have learned so far, it is that that little period, that little bit, is never as short as you think it is going to be, even after it is over.
I wrote the following on January 27, but decided not to publish it. I think, after all, that I will. It’s still unedited, raw, logorrheic, but that is exactly the point. This is not good writing: that is exactly the point.
It’s been a while. It feels like a while, anyway. Time travel – time zone travel – a night awake, a day in bed. Decisions made, furniture trashed, medicine taken and not taken. The ten days before my last entry I did nothing but sleep and watch West Wing; the twelve days since then have been another universe.
“Keeping” a blog or journal: what’s it really mean? I write something in here when I have an idea for something that might look good, or when I have nothing else to do, or when I feel obligated (to whom? to you? to myself? to it? to fight it?). An archipelago of insular thoughts. The transitions, dotted horizontal lines. That’s not “keeping” a blog. And my journal: my journal is no better. A thought here, a thought there, two days without, a week without. Going back through the filing cabinet of years: a whole Moleskine with only three pages filled, a green composition the last entry of which implores me not to stop, worries from high school that have grown older with me but stayed the same in all the vital ways.
At home, unable, unwilling to leave, cold, tired, forgetful. It occurs to me that I threw out all my papers. Where, I think, are the graded essays I wrote freshman year, those comments from the professor that were so detailed, so thoughtful? Trashed. Where are even the hard copies from last year, my philosophy papers? I have the Word documents, and that is all – if my computer were to die, as it may, it would all be down the memory hole. And so I would have gone to college. I decide to print out what I have written, to make hard copies, a box I can carry around and have, my records, my files, or something: a box to store what slips out of my brain after a month or a week of disuse, spare storage from which I can remind myself, I did this once.
And I come across an XML file deep in the recesses of the (abstract) filesystem, unparseable by Chrome, the record of a blog a wrote entitled (get ready) “Things that Rhyme with Richard Milhous Nixon.” XML is fantastic for its combination of human-readability and ease of use by programs, but it doesn’t print well, and I spend the better part of a day converting it to a Microsoft Word document. At first I considered writing a program to fetch just the relevant bits – a quarter of the file was metadata – but ended up just manually copying and pasting, which gave me a chance to revisit some of the things that I said just a few days shy of four full years ago. Consider the first entry, from February 1, 2009:
I will not and cannot pretend that I am starting this blog because I personally “feel an urge” to write, and that whether or not anyone reads it, I am satisfying my own desires and needs. That would be a blatant lie. The truth is that I have three moleskine notebooks in the drawer next to my bed, and one of them is on me almost all the time. I don’t write in it every little thing that comes to mind as I originally intended, but when there is something that absolutely needs to get written down, in it goes.
The contents of the first one are mostly about how I want to run away to New Jersey, interspersed with the occasional caffeine-induced drawing of some abstract concept like love, individuality or the stock market. There’s one I liked at the time that’s an extended metaphor comparing a car to a woman. To be honest, I still like the idea if not the wording I used. The book is about half full and then abruptly stops.
The second one is almost entirely unrequited love, with the occasional address or telephone number scrawled illegibly, and homework assignments I never did. If you flip it upside down and read from the back, I integrate a rational function by partial fractions. It’s pretty fucking ill.
The third one is empty.
So I don’t need a blog as a faucet for my thoughts that are building up inside me to the breaking point. (I believe Ryan’s old blog from back in the day was called “The Faucet.”) This is entirely about my need to have people read what I write. It’s not noble but I’m not ashamed of myself.
It seems the first entry of my blog is always an explanation of its purpose, for I did the same thing with this one, but the contrast is stark. From June 4 of last year:
So once again I find myself in the blogging world. It’s a strange world, like our own and yet not like it, a world where the private becomes public, where my innermost thoughts are spread out on the Internet for all to read, at least ostensibly. Of course, the truth is that the vast majority of blogs are read primarily by the author, the author’s mother (hi, Mom) and two to three of the author’s acquaintances who have nothing better to do than to refresh their RSS every thirty seconds. So who is a blog for? I suppose the truth is, as is probably obvious, that a blog is for me, the author. After all, it takes me longer to write than it takes you to read, and time is everything, blah blah blah etcetera.
I’d like to say that in four years I’ve grown more mature, that I’ve realized that it is not all about what other people think, that I’ve become more introspective, or something like it, but the truth is (the truth is, echoing the past) that I’ve become less honest. What else is the point of the little bar graph on the top left of the page (you can’t see it) that alerts me when other people are reading?
I’ve become less honest: with myself, and with you. This started out as a way to share day-to-day events and pictures of CERN with friends and family back home; back in the city, it has taken on a surreal, dreamlike quality. I haven’t told you about any of the most important things. Any of them.
I haven’t told you about Teach For America: I spent the whole fall trying to get in, going to my first Real Job Interview, making my Résumé, planning The Future, going to Do Good Things, and when I finally got accepted and given more-or-less my ideal assignment (high school science in Milwaukee) I turned them down.
I haven’t told you how depressed I was. Consider this entry from March 19, 2009:
It was bad when I had something to blame my unhappiness on. I’m depressed, I said, because the woman I want doesn’t want me back. But I don’t have that any more. Now I’m just depressed.
And yet, I have mood swings like a menopausal woman. Three days ago I felt wonderful, lying in Thornden shirtless with Ray and Tom. Why can’t I feel like that now? Why am I so empty?
“She’s like alcohol,” I explained. “I know she’s bad for me, and I know nothing good will come of it; I regret it on the way home and she’s ruining my relationships. But I can’t stop drinking.”
“Maybe you should drink instead.”
“It would be harder on my liver.”
“It might be easier on the rest of you.”
[i just want some one to ask me whats wrong i dont have a answer for you i dont got no answers i dont need no stinkin answers i just want to hear your voice i just want to know you care im needy im needy i need i need i i you you i need you to want to me to be ok i yes need please please ask me whats wrong whats what whats wrong]
Could I have written that this fall? It might have been true: on the worst of days, I woke up and even before opening my eyes I could feel them straining to produce tears at how terrible it was that I would have to wake up, to go to class, to put on my “face” and pretend like everything was all right, and they couldn’t even do that because what was the point of crying, fuck it all. But I am older now, and the difference is not that depression has gotten easier, the difference is I didn’t want to scream for attention about it any more. I haven’t told you I’m in therapy.
The point of writing it down, I am learning, is for you now and for me later. To see the continuity, to see that that was not new, that I have been depressed before: it may not make sense to you, but it was reassuring. Four years ago: where did college go? From three days later, March 22:
The tears won’t come and I just sit there shaking, sobbing, trying to breathe, where did it go [where did my childhood go where did my four years go where did you go where am i i dont know i from i the loading dock is spinning i dont ever want to leave i dont ever want to leave let me stay here for ten minutes just five minutes i need one more minute i need twenty years i cant let this go i cant let this go]
Where did my childhood go? Where did all this fucking time go? All the concerns are the same. And this is why we need hard copies.
I haven’t, for God’s sake, told you, I haven’t told you about Maya for God’s sake. I won’t right now, but how can I claim this has any resemblance to my life if I haven’t told you about Maya?
That old blog, I posted almost every day. From February 1 to May 20 I produced 82 pages of written material: and then it stops without an explanation.
Here, again, present day, February 3, 2013. I’ve made a decision. This blog, “Bohring,” has outlived its usefulness, both to you and to me. It was a personal blog that I eventually tried to infuse with some quality writing, but if I’ve learned anything it’s that this isn’t how quality writing happens. This is rushed, this is limited, this is not what I want.
I’m not going to delete the blog, but I won’t be posting to it anymore. Consider it an archive of my thoughts, from June 4, 2012 to February 3, 2013, comprising 160 pages when transferred to a Word document. A limited archive, a sometimes sadly sparse archive of what was, I assume but don’t always remember, was richer than could be committed to typed words.
Instead I’ll be focusing more on writing as an actual craft: something that takes time, concentration, privacy. If I decide to, I might start another blog with a few excerpts, that will in no sense be a personal journal or thought archive (or will it, you might ask if you are a philosopher of writing) but in any case don’t count on that.
I don’t know if there is a thing you are supposed to say here.
I was going to Internist Associates on Crouse for some blood work. Blood work, something that I have always heard about and never had to have before now. The things one discovers when one is ill; the things one discovers, growing older. They never did blood work when I was sick as a kid. How do you feel? OK, take this and get better. Don’t they trust me any more?
The blood work, however, was not harrowing. “I’ll close my eyes,” I told the technician. “OK,” she said. Stick, stick. “Done,” she said. “Confirm name and date of birth?” “Um,” I fumbled, disoriented. “Um. Ben Burdick. June 12, nineteen ninety… one.” “Got it,” she said, “you’re all done.” “In case I forgot?” I said, half-jokingly. I’d forgotten my doctor’s name when I had to sign in earlier. “No,” she said, kindly, “just to make sure the sticker printed right.”
“When will I get the results?” I asked. “Few days.” “Oh,” I said. “Um.” I didn’t quite know how to say it. “I mean, I guess I’ll just have to wait. I was just told not to drink alcohol until I got the results back…” She laughed. “It should be done by tomorrow,” she whispered, knowingly.
No, the blood work was pretty easy: in and out in ten minutes. It was the parking lot that ruined my morning. Ah, the parking lot: a despicable creation that three and a half years of life in New York have only caused me to hate more on those occasions when, returning to Syracuse, I am forced to enter and exit one. I could have parked on the street cheaper and easier; I parked in the lot, I imagine, out of pure habit, because that’s what you do when you go to the doctor. No spot on the first floor; no spot on the second floor. A near-scrape with a guy coming around the corner too fast. And then these two guys.
I was furious. Maybe I was already aggravated by Syracuse’s lights, which made it take ten minutes to go a mile and a half in almost zero-traffic conditions. (As I said to my father the other day, Syracuse’s lights, unlike New York’s, are timed abysmally. It’s not just that they don’t match up, so you get a few in a row; it’s that they do match up against you. It’s not a case of “no one took the time to plan this;” if the lights were totally random you’d probably do better. It took effort to make them that inefficient. But I digress.)
But this isn’t just about me having to go two floors up. I can handle a little walk, and my time isn’t so precious that I’ll throw a temper tantrum about an extra three minutes searching for a spot. This is about the other guy, the drivers of these cars, license plates EWU4441 and FTM7838. Because when you get right down to it, what is the purpose of parking in this way? It doesn’t save them time. Maybe it saves five seconds in which you don’t have to think about even a tiny bit of aptitude at coloring inside the lines, but I doubt they’re even thinking that. There is almost no direct advantage to the driver of these cars. The purpose, when you get right down to it, is nothing but to say to everyone who drives past: Fuck You. Right? Fuck You, this says, I made it harder for you to find a spot and it didn’t even help me, I did it just to say fuck you!
In New York, we have a motto. That motto is: Fuck me? No, fuck you.
Consider this: an app for smartphones, integrated with the camera. You upload a picture and the license plate of the offending car. Then you see if they’ve been uploaded before; you can search by license plate. Maybe a comment feature. That’s all. No linkage to personally identifying information, no integration with Facebook, just a standalone little app to help identify repeat offenders. Would that do anything?
Or would their response be the same as what they said in the first place? You think I’m an asshole? What do I care what you think?
Isn’t it funny how quickly the travails of a cyclist become the mundane fuck-yous of every other driver in America? The culture runs deep; it’s not a pleasant culture, but it’s here to stay. You might say it’s in our blood.
It is… some time in the morning. Afternoon? Is it noon yet? I had a fever of 102.4 when I got to the Northeast Medical Center in Fayetteville. That is before noon, right? Noon is 12 and 102.4 is… after 12? So it must be, no, that doesn’t make sense. Nothing makes sense. A physician’s assistant comes in with an IV. She tells me all of the things she is going to put in my body. Saline. This is because I am dangerously dehydrated.
I have been able, but not very able, to swallow water for about forty-eight hours. After The People left — I ran a sort of commune at my house this New Year’s, with people crowded in so tight the wood floor was a necessary sleeping space, which I would have written about had I had even twenty minutes of free time, which I did not — after The People left, what I thought was an extended hangover turned into Something Else. My fever from before their arrival, which I had been told by the NYU Health Center was a UVI (Unidentified Viral Infection), which had receded, came back in full force. The night sweats returned and I had to wash my sheets. Have you ever had a night sweat? It is exactly what it sounds like. It is not warm in your room — it may even, like my room, be a little cooler than you’d like — but you wake up wetter than after a 40-mile bike ride in summer. I had to wash my sheets along with everyone else’s though I’d washed them not a week prior. But along with it this time came a sore throat, barely noticeable except when I swallowed, when the pain level shot up to maybe a 7 out of 10, prompting an involuntary “urrrrrgh” I knew I would have to restrain on the Greyhound to avoid sounding like a pervert. Instead I drank limited water. And woke up with a mouthful of sand.
Back to the bed at Northeast Medical. There is the big bag of saline, maybe a liter of it to replenish my fluids. There is also a smaller bag of saline, this one, she tells me, containing an antibiotic called Rocephin, which I hear but do not register. I found the name just now by going to Wikipedia’s “List of antibiotics” and looking for one that started with “R.” There is also a steroid that comes in a plunger-vial; this is for the inflammation in my throat so, I assume, it does not close up, causing, I assume, death.
A side note: According to Grammarist, I have mistakenly switched the usage of “assume” and “presume” for much of my life. “Presume” connotes a little more usage of evidence and therefore a higher degree of certainty than “assume.” I always assumed, I guess, that it was the other way around, based on the highly unscientific and unreasonable evidence that “pre” meant “before looking at the evidence,” which in this context it does not. The usage above is correct, because as I mentioned before, I am in no state to consider evidence. I have a fever of 102.4. For all I know the steroid is to make me better at baseball.
I watch the IV line going in and become nauseous. “You don’t have to look,” my mom assures me, “you can close your eyes. “Take this Tylenol,” the physician’s assistant says, “for your fever.” I take the two Tylenol and vomit within seconds. She goes to get me a liquid version. I close my eyes and cry silently, involuntarily. How did I get here?
As the fluids drip into my arm I turn to my mom. “Mom,” I raspily say. “Mom.”
“It feels like I’m in the desert and I’m drinking from an oasis but not through my mouth.”
“I know, honey. You can nap.”
I do. The PA comes back. I am brought out for a chest X-ray and then back. I nap some more and then stare at the posters in the room. One is red. It says in white: “TELL us. It’s the LAW.” Below, in smaller letters: “If you’re taking a controlled substance prescribed by a doctor, you must tell every other doctor you see. It’s the law.” I read this sign approximately seventy-five times. It becomes more boring for the first fifteen or so readings, then there is a spike in my interest. Why only if it’s prescribed by a doctor? It comes down, I realize after a few more readings, to the Constitution: I have a Fifth Amendment right not to be forced to tell anyone I’m using heroin. Satisfied with this conclusion, I continue reading, and it becomes boring again. I consider asking my mom to pass me the book I brought (Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey), or maybe my journal, but the prospect of writing tires me out so much I don’t even ask for the book and just read the sign another fifty times.
The PA returns. “Mono,” she announces unceremoniously.
“Blood work says mono.”
“God-fucking-damn it,” I say, maybe louder than I intended.
“That’s most people’s reaction.”
I am told to rest, to drink water until I turn into a fish, and to rest more. I am prescribed cephalexin and prednisone, more antibiotics and steroids, as well as told to take Tylenol. The cephalexin, I am told, will not kill the mono, but I might have strep, and the prednisone will lower my immune response so best to kick it into high gear.
“I have travel plans for Thursday,” I croak out, already knowing the answer to my unasked question. She looks at me sympathetically but sternly. She shakes her head almost imperceptibly. She talks to my mom for a bit but I don’t say anything else until she leaves. When she does I start to cry.
“I’m sorry, Ben,” Mom says.
“Why is this happening to me?”
“I’m sorry.” She drives me home. I watch two hours of West Wing. I eat dinner. I don’t remember what it was. I watch Brazil with Mom and Dad. I sleep. I wake up at 2 am and my sheets are again soaked as if it has rained indoors. I feel like a 12-year-old discovering wet dreams except there is nothing fun preceding the awful discovery that you have to do laundry. Nothing fun at all.
I press “UP” on the record player and gently slide the arm to the left with my thumb. The black vinyl begins to turn underneath. Now I press “DOWN,” which is the same button, and the needle falls rather un-gently onto the plastic. It is a good record player, but not an audiophile one: the needle is not weighted to exacting, milligram standards. No matter, I like it. Crack, pop, shhh. It is loud and grating for a moment as the needle searches for the groove then quiet as it drops into the preordained vibrations of the spiral.
I sit down on the couch and take the album with me. I open it. The lyrics are printed there, “printed” in the literal sense of the word, not typed but a copy of somebody’s scrawled notes, and not just one somebody: there are at least two hands here. I listen as “Montezuma” begins to play and follow along.
I don’t know about you, but lyrics have always… eluded me. I can listen to a song five, ten, twenty times, I can love it, I can recommend it to people before I have the slightest idea what it’s about. “Oh, Fleet Foxes,” I’ll say, “I love their sound.” But what they are saying, well, I just can’t hear it. I don’t tend to sit down and focus on the words, to the exclusion of all extraneous sounds and discussion. Music is a background for me, usually, something set a mood, to talk over, to enjoy casually, passively. Even at a concert, it is the “experience” I am there for. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter what the music is, far from it: it just means I can never tell you the name of the song I like, because I was getting a drink when they said the name, or I was talking to my friend when they sang the chorus.
Or even when I do sit down and try to focus: the lyrics are unclear, they are sung words, and I am a speaking man. The final r’s are dropped, the final g’s; the vowels are drawn out until there is no a, no i, no e, just a note sounded, part of the soundscape.
When I bought “Helplessness Blues” last week at the record store in Williamsburg, I decided when I got home I would learn this album. I would do what it took. I would sit down with the liner notes and follow along and learn these lyrics so I could finally talk about music like a real person. And so I did.
The experience of the whole album is something that, sometimes, people worry is lost in the age of MP3’s. Imagine my joy when I realize that these songs tell a story. A word, a place, “Innisfree,” repeated on Side D that was on Side A too: who knows what it means? I didn’t, and yet somehow the repetition made it clear what it the singer meant, in a way just saying it once would miss. This album, I thought, for the first time in years, and I do not mean that hyperbolically, for the first time in four years, this album is about me. I sat, and I read, and I listened. And when the album was over I made some tea and I did the whole thing again. This album is about me. What a feeling. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, but this is what music should be.
The poster, now, is on my wall.
This, Brandon says, is the reason for vinyl: and I think I agree with him.
I am getting used to it, I thought after the last time. This sort of thing is just a fact of life in the United States. It happens. It should not happen, but it happens. People suck. What do you say?
I am getting used to it. It is like when I read Maus when I was twelve. There is only so much you can feel. There is only so much shock to be experienced before it all blends together in a kind of dull grey background horror, like clouds, or AIDS in Africa. You can’t live a normal life, if you think about it too much, if you dwell on it. You can’t live a normal life.
God-fucking-damn-it, I am sick of this. I am leaving and going to Nepal.
There is a part of me that wants to write an impassioned polemic about gun control. You made this happen. There is a part of me that wants to refute all the counterarguments. If guns are illegal only criminals will have them: yes: that is the point. Adam Lanza’s gun was bought legally. It was in his mother’s house. Why? Who the fuck knows? He was not a criminal until he used the gun to murder people. But what if the teachers were armed? Who the fuck are you kidding? The facts are clear: in the U.S., you can legally buy a gun and there were 8,775 murders with guns in 2010; in the U.K., you cannot legally buy a gun and there were 58 murders with guns with 2011. The U.S. has five times the people and 151 times the shooting.
I could push this point, if my head were clear, if things made sense, but I do not know if it is even worth it. Things are going to change this time, people are saying, the laws are going to change, people are waking up. I do not think that’s true. You get used to it: people are not waking up. People are staying the same.
I was crying on the way to the train today: I am getting used to it: how can you ever get used to it? How can… fuck, you know? Fuck. Nepal.
Even here, even in this field in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, sandwiched between a Holiday Inn Express and nowhere, the sky is not black. I am six miles from downtown Kenosha, a little over five from my grandmother’s condo on the northwestern outskirts of town, but I suspect the dull grayish glow is coming not from Kenosha but from Chicago. The moon is out, too, but it is not the moon that is obstructing the heavens any more than it is oxygen obstructing my breathing. It is ten-thirty p.m. (Central Standard Time, of course) and I can see Orion’s belt, Sirius, and some other stars. That is all. There are more than in New York, but not as many as in Tolland. While it might seem pedantic to point out that the stars are there whether I can see them or not, that is exactly what I am thinking about.
I walk further out into the field, and the ground beneath my feet changes. Even though I can see it in the fading sodium of the parking lot lights, I prefer to feel the shift tactilely: first soft, manicured grass, then rough, wild brush, then the corrugated dirt of a field left fallow. I am startled by a loud, high, piercing whistle that sounds so close I am worried I have stepped on someone; but it comes again from the other side. For a moment I wonder if I am surrounded, but I don’t worry too hard. It is a bird, or a group of birds. Their call is long, not a chirp so much as a sigh three octaves up.
The sky above me feels big. It is not so dark, but it is still never like this in New York. It is so big. I am thirteen again, sneaking out of the bunk to stargaze in the upper field.
It’s sort of hard to imagine how big it is, and how small we are. How can anything we do matter?
Shut up, Gabe.
And then something happens. I am looking at the sky and imagining I can follow Venus’ utterly imperceptible motion (it is probably not even Venus I am looking at) and wondering what it all means and generally thinking about the same things I always think about and it suddenly occurs to me— no, that is not the right word, it is suddenly apparent, it is suddenly obvious— no.
It is suddenly made apparent to me that I cannot understand what it is for. Where did the universe come from? Why is there something instead of nothing? What is the purpose of it all in the grandest sense? How could I possibly hope to answer a question about the meaning of motions so slow, so much a part of a different epochal timescale that the constellations have classical Greek names, and could as well have had Egyptian ones? I know that they move, they are stars like ours, but they have not moved perceptibly in all of human history and never will.
The question, it seems, is not what is the Universe for, but what am I for.
I realize that there are tears on my cheek. I spread my arms upward. It sounds melodramatic now, but it was not. I do not have to explain myself. I asked for a sign. I looked around. Headlights on the other side of the field, on 75th Street, came and went.
The bird — was it a bird? — let out another long, less-startled note. I let my arms fall to my sides. I waited. One, two, three. Then I turned and sprinted across the field, making long, high strides, feeling the hard packed brushed dirt beneath my feet.
“Well, Charles,” I said, standing by the Physics Department office copier, “I’ve finally gone and done it.” I raised my handiwork for his inspection. He inspected it.
“Ah,” he said in that ambiguously sarcastic Charlie-voice we all know and love so well, “yet another pissed-off biker.” My printout was this:
“Another pissed-off biker:” yes, I know that’s how people see me. But after nearly three months of Brooklyn life, after nearly a hundred commutes over the Williamsburg Bridge bike path (north side), I had had enough. How many times, I ask myself, must I slow to an unstable crawl to avoid hitting the leftmost of a group of three Hasidic women pushing their strollers from Manhattan to Brooklyn with nary a care for the lines painted on the ground? How many runners must I pass in the far left of the uphill lane for fear that they will jump out in front of me like the woman on the West Side Highway those months ago?
It would, paradoxically, not be an issue if the bridge were more crowded. The Brooklyn Bridge has a narrow wood-slatted path that places bikers and pedestrians side by side. Sometimes for the sheer density of people, someone spills over into the bike side (also north), and I am prepared for this, I can see this happening, and so when I am on the Brooklyn Bridge I keep my speed low and a finger on the bell. Ditto for the 59th Street Bridge. But the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges have fully separated lanes, ten feet wide for bikes and ten feet wide for walkers, with different entrances, different exits and no reason to mix. It is a highway for bikes. On a good day I can make it from landing to landing, from South 5th Place and Street in Brooklyn to Delancey and Clinton Streets in Manhattan, in seven minutes. I feel somewhat entitled to my speed, and I feel justified in that entitlement. People have told me I need to slow down and recognize that there will be pedestrians in the bike lane, that it is not their fault; well, if you walk on the highway, that ticket is several hundred dollars. We do not recognize a right to walk in the highway. Paths are separated for everyone’s safety and comfort: why does it appeal to someone on foot to share a space with cyclists whizzing by at twenty-five miles an hour? This is why I put a map on the sign: some people might just be unawares.
You have all had to put up with my adamance on this issue and I will bore you no longer. Here the story begins. I am riding over the bridge after Oliver’s show. It is approximately midnight and the bridge, while not crowded, is far from empty. I pass ten, maybe twelve bikers and am passed by three or four before reaching the midpoint. It is not until here that I remember the sign in my backpack. Along with the sign above, I have a few printed up with the same text but without a map, with a line added to the effect that if you find yourself on the wrong side, it is OK, just please cross over the tracks at the top of the hill. I consider stopping to put it up near the crossover; that is why I printed it up, no? But there is a pedestrian a little ways behind me. He is the exact person I am trying to reach with these signs and I should not be ashamed to put it up in front of him, even as he passes me. In fact, if I am serious about this, I should speak to him; I should tell him, look, it is nothing personal, this is not an attack, but were you aware, sir, that the walkway is on the other side?
But I do not.
I am a little embarrassed and I can’t exactly pinpoint why, but I suppose you understand. It is a little awkward. I continue down the hill, embarrassed at the prospect of having to actually speak to this stranger, ashamed at my unassertiveness. On the way downhill I reconsider. I printed these signs: I finally printed these signs. I have been thinking of printing these signs for literally weeks. How could I give up now? How could I live with myself? To come so close and give up for fear of a stranger: who am I?
I reach the bottom of the hill and know where I am going to put the sign: I am going to tape it to the pole that holds the graffitied, illegible NO PEDESTRIANS sign. That one is official and metal and utterly disrespected. I cannot really expect mine will do better: but I can try. I reach the bottom of the hill, pull over, and look at the pole. The frame of a bicycle is locked to it, no wheels, no handlebars, just a frame. The metal is twisted and bent beyond salvage. The frame has been painted white. I do not remember seeing a sign: there does not need to be a sign. All cyclists know what this means.
My gripes all seem suddenly very trite. I stare at the ghostly frame for a long, long time: maybe a minute, maybe five, I don’t know. I try very hard to contain myself. I know I cannot affix my sign to that pole. That pole is taken.
Should I put it up at all? At first it almost seems silly. But I think harder and decide that this is the very reason that my sign is so important. When I was knocked off my bike by the woman on the West Side Path, it was a matter of luck that my bike was not painted white and locked to a tree. The danger will not decrease without education, without an active effort to make change in people’s habits. I go instead to a short pole, the barrier in front of the entrance that allows bicycles but not cars onto the lane, and quickly, looking around to avoid interaction, I tape my sign on all four sides to the metal. Then I jump back on my bike and head home, feeling a mixture of satisfaction and what some will no doubt call overly melodramatic sadness.
The next morning the sign is still there. I have won a small victory. There are only two pedestrians on the bridge. Perhaps the rest of them saw the sign, or perhaps it is just that cold today. This is New York. No matter how loud you shout or how big your font is, people will always find a way to ignore you.