By Aaron Lake Smith.
Time is passing and with it the sense of blood loss. Foisting around desperately, trying to put on the tourniquet to stop the bleeding. Waking up in the morning to the sharp clarity of few distractions: the unread emails in the inbox. The coffee, the bacon, the work, waiting for me like a live-in partner with crossed arms, ‘Where have you been all night?’ No more illusions left whatsoever. No more holidays, no more family – Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, birthdays, special days to get excited for and believe in. Just the dull roar of time, like the passing of a jet engine.
Conversations, once so easy and carefree, have become like delicate archaeological excavations – everyone has a lot that has been buried, and you don’t want go digging it up, for fear of breaking all their artifacts, dredging up their history. Careful, always careful, because just below the surface are vast reserves of pain, like patches of noxious gas. There is trauma and pain aplenty, broken friendships, unmet expectations galore, goals and dreams unaccomplished. The ever-present weight of gravity and time pressing down, obsolescence bottled up in tiny little jars and put into a museum Eventually, all the coffins come spilling out of the graveyard. This is why I veer things toward ‘conversation topics’ now – books, magazines, abstract ideas, anything to keep us from realizing that there’s no floor below us. Anything to keep the conversations from veering towards angst and despair – we simply wouldn’t be able to stand it. But somebody always ruins our gentle, congenial rapport – convincing themselves that they need to be the pernicious bearers of ‘reality’ – then the pain rises up – the grimaces on the faces, visage of death – despair pulling down the sides of the mouth, jowls sagging, a pressure building at the back of the skull. Age that was hidden in laughter and joy begins to show, and like some contagion that spreads from face to face.
The sum of my choices, making up my life. Leading me away from the world I’ve known, from that fleeting sense of community that I’ve felt, back to individualism – the weight of the social, a burden, delirious to jettison and have nothing left to say to the peers. No more small talk to make. Just a dull stare – a conversational space needing to be filled with checked text messages and staring down at the phone, or awkward small talk about “what” – what have we been doing. Rather than going out I decide to stay home and live with that. Rather than staying in the apartment, we decide to go out, and “live a little”, and live with that. Live free or die hard, either way you end up disappointed. The memory is made regardless – seared onto the spirit with every passing moment, like a tattoo that no laser can remove.
The New York subway system, like a dream, some strange avant-garde movie. Everyone in black and white, frowning, hairlines receding like shorelines during these times of hyperspeed global warming, at the rate of an inch a year. There are clocks everywhere, though now ornamental and antiquarian, having been deposed of their social duty since cellphones and wristwatches have taken over. There is now a higher chance of a tourist snapping a picture of one on their digital camera to capture the ambiance than someone looking at them to find out the hour. Still, they are eerie reminders – in the underground tunnels with no way to see the sun, how are we to know what time of day it is? Tired, sagging, purposeless. So much of the social decay can be perceived in all the unspoken semiotics of mass transit – the loneliness and grimaces of pain on the faces of all the book readers. A guy reading a biography on a train – the biography of a failure, a loser. The guy is learning all the wrong lessons. He takes those lessons back and teaches all of his friends the wrong things, spreading the gospel of the wrong. All the classes and races crammed up together in a train, poor blacks and Mexicans, rammed up against snotty, well-educated whites that in the privacy of their own homes and apartments make jokes and laugh at stereotyped representations of these groups – thugs, gangsters, rappers. When spontaneous, unexpected interactions occur on mass transit they are usually either in the context of flirtation or in the bonding of two members of a subculture, Hasid to Hasid, punk to punk (“Hey, I like your t-shirt, man”) But in the scrambled cultural soup where all commodities can now be easily voyeured and consumed, there are fewer and fewer secret handshakes. All is available for purchase, everyone can be anything with no risk or consequence. Most people sit and stare out the windows at the darkened wall of the tunnel, or at their own reflection in the fluorescent lights: hollow-cheeked and tired-looking. But then occasionally a light in the dank passing darkness: a little bit of sunlight coming in from the grates on the street where the people walk above, like sunflowers blooming. The lights and faces in the windows of a passing train. The cheery, prerecorded voice that sounds like an atomic-age dad turning on as we stop in the tunnel: Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologize for the delay. There is a train stopped ahead of us. Thank you for your patience and we should be moving again shortly. A ghostly swagger of a flashbulb’s swaying movements outside of the train window, a man walking down the track, ghostly, desolate underground astronaut. The train squeals and creaks back into motion and the strange bottomdweller and his lantern recede away. The street musicians wander from car to car like lost souls, looking for that perfect audience who is ready to listen to their songs and donate a couple of dollars when the hat is passed around. So many fail and receive only disdain and antipathy for their efforts, because their spirit doesn’t believe in itself and they carry with them a secret pessimism and resentment for the listener that all can feel subconsciously. The ones that succeed bubble with zeal for life and their art and are most of all self-pleasing and pure of heart – the ones that are wild life-lovers elicit the smiles and laughs and people grappling for their wallets. Them and the mariachi bands – the mariachi bands are usually made up of grim, solemn men but their music is so upbeat and runs so counter to the overly self-conscious and readiness-to-please that city-dwellers find so disgusting.
Worried looking commuters – so tired, so worried – cancers developing in secret places so slowly. In the labyrinthine tunnels under the city streets, one starts to run in hopes of not missing the next train, and then all of them do – lemming-like, they follow the shuffling feet in front of them. This is how panics begin – witch trials, riots, rumors, stampedes, crisis and collapse. It is also the way of popularity – value is added to the propped-up façade with every obsessed fan, or obsessed critic. This lemming-like impulse is the way of the world – the one before following the one in front of them down tile hallways with blinders on.
What gurgles up from under these islands, untouched by the withering hand of civilization? What ancient history and humus is brought to the surface during the torrential rains and earthquakes and winds? What darkness lurks in the untouched backwaters? Have the bloodstains ever been washed out of the land? Why did we come so far and so fast across the empty plains, traveling with no home waiting for us on the other side? The barren strip mall farmlands, red with surveyors tape, flattened for our box structures filled with products no one will buy. The undeveloped areas between the land saved, preserved in some stage of the primeval, rescued and vividly alive as opposed to the dead landscapes elsewhere. The nothingness there – not even the effort of human endeavor, only the buildings, comfort, the withdrawal inward away from each other. This forsaken place, bigger in scale and spirit than any in these declining times – a gambler, a high stakes roller, a YOUNG BUCK of a civilization, with its swagger and contrarianism. One can see it in the diminishing of our actors, their pride and youthfulness, the power of their emotions – no more Cary Grants, Henry Fondas, James Deans. We have sapped the land, not just of its fossil fuels and organic matter, but of its spirit.
There is something horrible about the double bind of cycling in the city – the expensive accoutrements, lights, helmets, neon spandex that need to be bought in order to not be killed. If one doesn’t have these items and cycles at night wearing dark clothing, they survive only on sheer luck, relying on the glare of headlights and the last minute paranoid swerving of conscious drivers. In the street, cars give irritated honks even if the cyclist is pushed all the way to the side, rattling over rocks, biohazard bags, and rickety sewer grates. If the cyclist opts to ride on the sidewalk, selfishly assuring their own survival, they are met with the bewildered angry glares from the pedestrians, the awkward stumblings as they move out of the way thinking that they are going to be hit. On the sidewalk, the cyclist is jeered at with, “Don’t ya know you’re supposed to ride in the street, ya idiot!” and when he moves to the street, he is met with honks and people leaning out of passenger windows and shouting, “Get on the sidewalk, you fool!” In the end, there is no place for cyclists – one takes their life into their own hands by getting on a bike, even with a helmet, lights, and all the accompanying gear. One coasts past the ‘ghost bike’ memorials, fallen soldiers in the silent war between the car drivers and the meek and environmentally conscious. Cycling vs. car transportation is the story of our times told as a vignette, in miniature: institutionalized brute strength and unsustainable luxury prevail because of its cockiness and swagger. One has a much better chance of survival in a shiny black Escalade: forcefulness, self-assuredness and status quo always overtake the more gentle, gliding forms of life: the soft-spoken, the sensitive, the gentle: FASCISM, like a vice grip closes in on the few remaining meek and pure souls, crushing the sweetness and goodness out of them as one presses and dries flowers.
There are still secrets to be found everywhere – a new life can be had for us all. Anti-wrinkle, anti-aging fountain of youth never get old, new life and continuous discovery. This is the only way to get back the nostalgic glow of the past. I read in the newspaper the other day about a man in Brooklyn convinced of the existence of underground subway tunnels that hadn’t been found yet. Obsessed, he did his research and found reference to the tunnels and the schematic diagrams of their whereabouts. One foggy night, he and a friend snuck their way down a manhole, and broke through a brick wall with a sledgehammer near where they believed the old rail tunnels to be – there he found his misty El Dorado, his own private secret – the first subway, which lay undiscovered for a century by city historians and bureaucrat planners, cooped up in their offices, with all the finances of the state behind them, but was easily uncovered by his passion. He made a deal with the city and now he conducts his own tours down under through his own little plot of earth, his private little cocoon of history. He’s planning on breaking through another concrete wall, where he is convinced that there lies a dusty old disused locomotive that would have been too much effort to disassemble and lift from the underground. The forgotten and the disused and the abandoned are our only hope – everything else has been built up, appropriated, demolished, developed, and finally when the ethereal credit casinos collapsed – slowly returned to dust. Our only hope is in rediscovering the lost and buried corners of the earth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aaron Lake Smith lives in Brooklyn. He has written for the NY Times, Brooklyn Rail, Epilogue Magazine, Arthur Magazine and the Washington Post.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 24th, 2009.