By the time I get back home, whether it?s an hour later or 15 minutes, those same crushing walls welcome me like a warm hug.
I live in a very pleasant neighborhood in Brooklyn. I don?t deny that?when I first moved here all those years ago, I made a conscious decision that I no longer wanted to live in a slum. So yes, it?s a very pleasant neighborhood full of very pleasant people. Yet nearly every time I come back to my little room after stepping outside the door, I return aching to kill.
On any given weekend, the moment the clock slides past 9 a.m., the streets become choked with young couples, walking their dogs, pushing their double strollers, stopping unexpectedly in the middle of the sidewalk to chat with some other dog- or child-owner about stoop sales or fresh vegetables or muffin shops. They?re all so goddamn pleasant.
But I guess that?s what they came here for, when they all made that late-80s exodus across the river to Brooklyn to bear their children. There?s safety in numbers.
This afternoon, as it turns out, the walls weren?t getting tight on me. No, instead, I decided to step outside my door for two very stupid reasons. First, my back was seizing up on me again. It?s a fairly recent development in the slow, ongoing collapse of my biological infrastructure, the troublesome back. I thought that maybe a quick stroll would loosen up the bones and the muscles. The second reason, the stupider of the two, was that I thought by stepping outside I could delay the onset of the drinking for a little bit. And while I know that I no longer throw it down the way I used to when I was a young man, I also know that, once I get started?alone at the kitchen table on an empty day?I won?t stop until there are no more bottles or I?ve passed out. If I can delay the onset for even half an hour?maybe even cracking noon before cracking that first bottle?I might just make it to nightfall.
Well, the more I walked, the more I picked my slow, blind way through the satisfied masses out buying their fresh fish and their imported cheeses, the more my back tightened up with the slow burn, and the more I ached for the silence, the isolation and that first drink.
Another stupid move on my part was that I went out there among them all again without the cane. That?s always a mistake. I tend not to use the cane around the neighborhood, except on my way home from the bar. I still, to this day, tell myself that I know the neighborhood well enough by now, the cracks and buckles in the sidewalk, the low-hanging branches, the people who tend to leave their gates open?that I can get around just fine without it. And while that?s true at 7 a.m., before anyone else is up and about, any later than that and I?m going to have to deal with those unpredictable monads (other pedestrians) who tend to pop up out of nowhere just to get in my path. If I don?t have the cane out, tapping a loud and insistent beat on the concrete, they won?t know enough to get the hell out of the way.
It?s just trouble for everyone involved.
Cane or not, however, these people clogging the local sidewalks have been getting to me more and more lately. It makes me feel young again.
"Contempt" is actually too harsh a word for my reaction. Again, when I was younger, yes, then contempt was indeed what I felt when confronted with unmoving public hordes. I thought I was better than they were?smarter, more aware, more valuable in whatever sense. But as I?ve become slower and more beaten down, I know I?m no better. In fact, in so many ways, I?m either exactly the same, or worse, more loathsome. They have their dogs and their children and their immobile strollers, they have a variety of pleasant things to talk about with their equally appointed neighbors, while all I have, it feels sometimes, is two cats and a typing machine. They have stable lives and stable incomes and degrees and important jobs and maybe a few of them do volunteer work. Most of them probably do volunteer work, come to think of it. And they?re very proud of themselves for helping out the less fortunate. They?re better than me, and they know it. That?s why they buy their food at a co-op. And there are so many important things they can yammer about. Yammer, yammer, yammer.
Well, fuck it. These past several months have been good to me. I know that. Maybe not by standards that most hold tight to, but it?s enough for me. I got my chilled bottle of red over there, open on the table. I?ve been working on that for a little bit now. I got smokes and a tv. On an empty Saturday afternoon, what more could a simple man ask for?
Here?s a quick funny scene that almost saved the whole walk from being nothing more than a harsh lesson in aggravation:
I stepped into the cramped bodega I frequent to pick up a pack of smokes. Inside, I found myself standing behind a young fellow who, after plopping his portable phone down on the counter, demanded a cup of hot chocolate from the Pakistani behind the counter. The Pakistani rolled his eyes at the request, since it would mean dumping the fresh pot of coffee in order to make a fresh pot of hot water for a single cup of hot chocolate.
"Have coffee," the Pakistani suggested to the customer.
"I don?t drink coffee," the young man replied. "I want hot chocolate."
The Pakistani muttered something in a language I didn?t understand, and stared at the man.
"Hot...chocolate," the customer repeated, slowly and insistently.
The Pakistani muttered again, as he turned to dump the coffee, this time punctuating his foreign mutterings with "Hot chocolate. You are so fucking irritating. Fucking stupid irritating hot chocolate man."
That made me laugh, if only to myself. Once I continued walking, though, after buying the smokes, past and through fecal breezes of conversation about Little League games and chores and birthday parties and old episodes of Seinfeld, all these bespectacled men with beards chatting amiably with other bespectacled men with beards, these well-manicured women wearing their weekend jogging suits and their frosted hairdos, young couples listening with rapt attention and smiles to kindly immigrant women in babushkas, laughing too loudly at the jokes because they think they?re having some sort of authentic multicultural experience?
Well, I do go on.
I got home, opened that bottle and closed the windows. Nothing out there worth seeing today.
I?m not this bad every weekend. Lately, maybe, but not every weekend. Some weekends I can ignore them, just drift past it all as if it were some kind of dead garden. But today, with the sky hanging so low, the air still and heavy and thick, everything that got in my way seemed to get in my way three times.
I?ve never found any place I?ve belonged. Not really. A few bars here and there, maybe, a few places where they came to know me, recognize the face, know what I wanted before I asked for it. But even in such places, places of distinct warmth and a certain kind of delight, once the stools and the tables became too crowded, I always had to pack up and flee.
I turned the stereo off. I?d heard enough music for one day. It was quiet.
It was very quiet. I couldn?t even hear the traffic anymore.
The cats were asleep.
The wine was beginning to loosen the muscles of my back. I decided to appreciate the silence for a good, long while. Finish the bottle. Maybe have a smoke.
Maybe I?d watch a movie after that. Maybe not.
Then, tomorrow, I?d get up early and take another stroll before anyone else was awake. People around here like to sleep in on weekends. They can afford to do that.
Then, tomorrow afternoon, I?d take another stroll, just to make sure that I appreciate all that I have.