Ramblings, July 3 2010

Today I had one of those days where I ended up with too much time to think. This is going to be a long one.

So last week I had a training session at my employer’s headquarters on Tuesday and Wednesday. Realizing that I also had Thursday off I decided to avail myself of a long weekend and move on to New York City for a couple of days. It was all very last minute; I had hoped that I could meet up with an old friend on the Friday, but she had plans for the weekend, so I decided to give a shot to the experience of New York as a tourist, as I had lived in the area for 5 and a half years until 2004. Every time I’d gone back before it was with certain other ideas in mind, about trying to reassume my “resident” persona, and just trying to make it happen again, be it for a few days. Each time I’d come back angry and depressed about the whole thing. And I think these experiences have probably led me to put some friendships into the background because they reminded me too much of what it was to have been there and called it home, and especially what it was to have lost that, indeed to have thrown it away as the cliche goes.

What cut me to the quick, and (in part) ruined a weekend I had planned with a friend, had been going back to Hoboken, where I lived (I also lived near Cliffside Park, but I haven’t been nearer to this than Edgewater since, it’s not even occurred to me). I tried to make arrangements with a friend to get a beer but it didn’t work out, the place where we were supposed to go had gone from pub to club (the sacrilege!), and even when I went for a (sober) walk by myself around the very small city the strange mix of familiarity and aloofness really got to me. The rest of the time I just felt like I wanted to crawl into a hole out of sheer sense of not belonging. The time before that on the drive in I went down Washington St. and ended up haunted with questions like “what are you doing here?” and “why did you have to come back?”

Oddly enough at the time I interpreted this as the voicing of the community — not in some mystical sense, but in the sense of my perception of the community, even though I wasn’t met with hostility by the locals. But I could tell that I didn’t belong. In reality, the crowds were the same people that were there when I lived there; but I was no longer the same. I’d been gone for five years by then, but the people in bars were still mostly the same age I remembered. Obviously, I wasn’t, neither in terms of age nor in terms of experience.

I really had not dealt properly with getting canned while I lived there, really, that lesson was very long in coming. Ultimately we all make our own beds, and there comes a time when one is pressed upon to lie in it. There is always an element of luck, and it is always random, unknowable and uncontrollable, but by and large it can only take you down if you screw up first. And sometimes it’s your job to concern yourself with the details. I’ve made my peace with that; it makes me hate myself so much sometimes that I can only wonder if it was truly worth it, although I know it is for my own betterment, for the long term. What can I say, it’s frustrating to know that you’re your own worst enemy, but then who could even be bothered to be my enemy? What have I got that someone would want so badly as to be a true enemy?

Hey, I called it “ramblings”. I meant that.

This is a very long prologue! To come back to the main point, however, I really sought to distance myself from these past experiments this time around. No secondary motives. No looking to see if I fit in. No unreasonable expectations that reality couldn’t live up to (through my own fault, anyway). And I actually enjoyed myself, but it’s also become clear as crystal that unless I want to do a hard-core photography weekend — and I mean, do nothing else than take pictures — I really shouldn’t go to New York anymore. It comes down to this — living there is one reality, visiting it is quite another. I actually found myself shopping, for Christ’s sake. (and no, this is not a complicated “coming out” note, I’m not anywhere to come out of). I went to Times Square and Rockefeller Plaza. I visited the MOMA gift shop and seriously considered buying a couple of things.

It’s a new experience, but it doesn’t even come close to that of actually living there. Those are the things I notice — the rumbling of the pavement when a subway train goes under it. The stifling humidity and very distinctive smell of the air in the PATH stations. The air conditioning that’s always far too cold in all subway cars, and just chills you in your sweaty clothes. The stifling heat of 2 o’clock summer sunshine in the concrete jungle. The beggars not even flustering you anymore. Knowing where you are in Manhattan in a second, including the name of neighborhood. Thinking, “oh yeah, that’s got to be on the East Side near the projects” when you see an address. Knowing that the candy-striped chimney in the middle of the street is to contain a leak in the ConEdison steam service. Not even flinching when you see a hobo wipe his own ass in a side street, just politely looking away and exhaling through your nostrils to make sure you don’t get a whiff of what just happened, same as you (and everyone else in the carriage) did when you were going home from Brooklyn one Sunday morning and a bum sprawled across 3 seats decided it was a good time to have a wank. Recognizing that smell of rotting wet garbage and urine, usually around disgusting puddles in the cracks in the pavement of an alley, as being the city’s vintage. Almost as the city’s way of saying “Fuck you, you think you’re so special? You’re not the first and you won’t be the last.” And the city has a point. It’s not directed at you, not specifically, it’s the general “you”. “You” know who “you” are, so to speak. “You” are there because of that. “You” want it. “You” can’t even imagine leaving “your” stamp on the city, but “you” can always tell yourself that the city leaves its stamp on “you”. It’s in knowing these things that “you” find it.

And yet the tourist experience is so removed from all that. You find yourself looking at other tourists with their gaudy clothes and thinking “is this what I’ve become?”. Living somewhere robs you of the opportunity of being a proper tourist there, really. Particularly when you didn’t really leave the place on good terms. You really can’t enjoy things the same way as tourists do. In a way you hate them for being there (the local’s instinct) and then realize that you’re deliberately chosen to be one of them.

Perhaps it’s because I’m taking an unnecessarily angry view of things. It’s true that in the past week I’ve been far more angry at things than I should be. I don’t mean angry at anyone in particular, just looking at things in a very negative light by default. On the whole drive up I was continuously angry at every other driver on the road. There are very few with which I couldn’t find fault. It’s true that Americans are pretty appalling drivers by and large, but I don’t even know how I could keep up that anger for almost the whole drive. It’s practically remarkable.

And then, the 90 minutes spent waiting at the border, to cover what couldn’t have been more than 1km… my mind kept looking for ever more painful and frankly medieval punishments for those responsible. Obviously this is out of proportion, but in my defense the guy handling the line seemed to chat with each car for at least 10-20 minutes, the other lines were moving several times as fast, and indeed he decided to send me, along with, well, almost everyone, for inspection. After which inspection the customs agents decided that I had indeed been honest in my declaration, be it said.

I kept wishing for worse and worse as time went by; eventually I wanted to see these people drawn and quartered, their lands plundered, and I wanted to hear the lamentations of their women. It makes me laugh to think on it now, but at one point I mock-wondered if perhaps it wasn’t my destiny to die in that very line, and by that point I was starting to feel a little bit nauseous (I was also gradually aching for a pee, which I didn’t think wasn’t an option, although now that I think of it I did have empty water bottles around). It’s practically embarrassing to think about, but where did this much anger come from? What do I have to be so angry about in the first place?

It’s not really an effort to place the blame for all sorts of things on anyone but myself. I’ve become very proficient at self-criticism. However there’s definitely a desire for self-identification as “not X”, and then finding lots of X’s to not be. It really brings to mind some lyrics from the Franz Ferdinand song “Dark of the Matinee”:

I time every journey to bump into you, accidentally
I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate
All the girls I hate
All the words I hate
All the clothes I hate
How I’ll never be anything I hate
You smile, mention something that you like
oh How you’d have a happy life if you did the things you like

It struck me when I listened to the song a couple of years ago. Double negatives work in grammar, but that’s a very restrictive binary world. Reality as a whole is more nuanced, to say the least. I know it’s true, that’s self evident on an intellectual level. Why don’t I seem to fully comprehend it, and let it guide my thoughts and decisions?

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